Two events this past week got me thinking about North Country schools, and particularly a cluster of subjects — the visual arts, music, and foreign languages — that I’ll call the Three A’s.
First was the report in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise detailing job cuts in the Saranac Lake school district, where my son Nicholas is a High School sophomore.
Three of the positions that will go happen to fall in this area of cultural literacy: an arts teacher, a foreign language teacher and a music teacher won’t be replaced when they retire or move on.
The second event was a happier one. My son Nicholas walked home from school and literally came shouting into the house that I had to hear a piece of music.
He jacked his I-pod-smart-phone thing into the stereo and cranked it up and the sound that came booming out of the speakers was Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” and in particular “Mars, the bringer of war.”
His music teacher had not only introduced him to the piece. Nicholas was turned on to it, engaged, passionate.
I think it’s fair to say that this is — anywhere in America — exactly the kind of experience parents want their kids to have in public school.
But especially in rural places like the North Country, I think it’s important, even essential, that educators, school boards, and taxpayers think long and hard about cultural literacy.
As they launch into life from our unique part of the world, our kids need not just the practical skills that will prepare them for a successful work life, but the much broader set of skills that will help them navigate our complex, fast-evolving society
I’m convinced that maintaining the Three A’s in our schools is also an essential economic development tool, as the North Country tries to woo young families willing to settle or remain in our small towns.
Some communities offer a lot to people willing to step away from kinetic, urban America. But if our schools don’t offer children a rich, diverse, turned-on experience, parents won’t even consider us.
None of this is a knock on the Saranac Lake school district, or on the other districts around the North Country that have made tough, brutal choices during this economic downturn.
In the final equation, very good things are going to be cut. Everyone will see a sacred cow gored.
And obviously, we need to teach our kids the basics: how to read and write fluently, a solid foundation in mathematics, a practical core understanding of science.
The people charged with making these choices are heroic. They clearly have the best interests of our kids in mind.
What I am suggesting, however, is that the Three A’s need to be ratcheted up two clicks on the scale of importance.
All too often, in this age of standardized tests, the arts are seen as expendable, and relatively “easy” things to let go. We can’t make that mistake.
That may mean taxpayers cracking open their wallets a little wider. But I also think districts need to be far more creative about making cultural literacy happen, despite necessary economies.
Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid are all cutting programs. What if they partnered to create a single, shared foreign language department?
Taken together, even with fewer people on staff, the three districts might actually offer more language choices.
The same could be done for the visual arts and music. By merging cultural literacy programs in small, underfunded districts, we might see a real flowering of creative thinking, and passionate public education.
The bottom line is that we can’t give up on that fundamental experience, the thing more important than any specific skill, that public schools have to provide.
That is, the opening and energizing of young minds.