In defense of the Three A’s

Have your kids been introduced to this man?

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.

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14 Comments on “In defense of the Three A’s”

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  1. Susanno says:

    YES. Thank you, Brian, for expressing it so well.

  2. Kathy says:

    Brian, this is a great article. I think you are onto something with your idea of the 3 districts partnering for a foreign language department. The upside of this kind of loss is the creativity that can come from it in finding a solution or new ideas.

    I have been homeschooling for 25 years and have a sophomore and 5th grader, so a few more years to go. One major goal I’ve had in homeschooling is to teach my kids to be life-long learners. I agree that the 3 – As are truly important in our kid’s development. I read an article once that stated studies showed that playing an instrument helps with learning math. I am sure there are other studies that are similar.

    That is really great about your son! I love to hear kids getting tuned into something – especially when it isn’t only sports, video games, or reality television.

  3. Mervel says:

    If we can’t create rational school districts, than I think this is a very good idea.

    I mean we combine for some sports programs it would seem this would make just as much if nor more sense.

  4. BRFVolpe says:

    Bravo, Brian, for elevating the 3 A’s. Kathy underscores the importance of life-long learning. And can I add, especially in the North Country, we must be mindful that the minds and eyes and ears of our kids’ worlds need to be expanded, because they’ll probably move away, (before they yearn to come back).

    In this era of shrinking budgets – both schools and households – small schools are especially vulnerable because the per-pupil-cost prohibits offering courses for a small number of kids. The bright side, is that digital technology and distance learning can bring Gustav Holst, Latin and Michaelangelo to our kids too.

    The structure to do this is here. BOCES (Board of COOPERATIVE Educational Services) was created in NYS to make shared services (with generous State Aid), available to school districts that were too small or too poor to afford what students need. Digital technology eliminates the need to bus students, or teachers. Hardware, transmission and vision can make it happen.

    But then, education is the last sector to benefit from foresight and technology, even in a robust economy. And sadly, the 3 A’s are seen as fluff in small worlds.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Indian Lake will be sharing a technology teacher in the new school year.
    Distant learning which is a form of shared service can help some of the problems.
    But we still have the problem of unfunded mandates schools and local governments struggle with.

    The latest unfunded mandate is the newest of the new math programs which will cost about $15,000 to implement in Indian Lake.

    Here’s an idea. How about all schools and local governments simply refuse to implement all unfunded mandates?

  6. tootightmike says:

    Keep in mind every time these discussions come up, that we can somehow afford to fight multiple wars in parts of the world where we should not be, that defense “contractors” get paid millions, perhaps billions, that we can bail out Wall Street and the auto industry giants…and the banks, but we can’t afford to hire enough teachers to do the job.
    The very rich, who control our government no matter who’s in office, control the money, the economy, and the legislative process…and serve only their own interests.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    This “let them eat cake” philosophy by the 1% needs to stop.
    Anyone for bring back the guillotine as a new Reality program?

  8. Mervel says:

    Not really true. School systems are basically funded locally through our property taxes and state government aid (funded through our state taxes) the federal government has very little impact on our schools.

    Affordability comes down to how much we want to spend in New York on our schools, not how many wars are going etc.

  9. Mervel says:

    If we ended every war tomorrow (as we should), no additional money would come to Lake Placid school system. The bottom line is this is a New York decision.

  10. scratchy says:

    Stagnant revenues and the relentless rise in public employee benefit costs is forcing some difficult decisions. Expect things to get worse before they get better.

  11. Kent Gregson says:

    War costs all of us. wether we realize it or not. You can’t drain away trillions from any economy without suffering. Passing that suffering on to our kids is really low. Brian’s sophomore is not going to be a sophomore next year or five years hence when things get finacially better. A kid is like an ice cream cone, you can’t put it down and get back to it later. We need to think of our responsibility to our children as more important than our reponsibilities to our entitlement programs and insurances.

  12. oa says:

    Insurance is pretty important, too, Kent. Health is like an ice cream cone…

  13. mervel says:

    I am against these crazy wars also. I just think it is a meaningless distraction to talk about that being the real issue concerning our local funding shortfalls for education, we have to act now and we have to act at the state and local levels. We already stopped the war in Iraq, anyone see any new education money from that?

    This is a local issue.

  14. SewardsFolly says:

    I too was lucky enough to turn onto Holst’s “the Planets” when a teenager.

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