Three questions about our schools

which, I hope, reveal more about me and how I think.

What’s the best band?

Marching Band 1 is truly a top-ranked band.* They consistently bring home awards from contests, they perform at the best parades, they are recipient of endless accolades.  They are a source of great pride for the students participating in the band, and they are well-prepared for a college marching band experience.  Even if they don’t pursue this, the time spent in marching band gives them a leg up in their college applications as a way to demonstrate their commitment and achievement.

However, this comes at a cost.  Students are expected to put in many long hours during the school year and over the summer.  Band competition days start very early in the morning.  Students are expected to devote additional time via private lessons in their instrument of choice and are expected to have not just a “student” instrument but an upgraded-quality instrument.

Marching Band 2 is, well, perfectly fine.  They bring home awards, but they might be a 2nd or 3rd place and from less prestigious contests.  No one’s going to be wowed by their experience, least of all some top college or another.

But the kids at Marching Band 2?  They are able to, even encouraged to participate in other activities.  Sometimes there are even athletes or cheerleaders who juggle these activities.  Kids are able to “double,” that is, take on a second instrument, playing one in Symphonic Band and the other in Concert Band.  Every now and again, a student will join who hadn’t had any middle school band experience at all.

Which is the “better” band?  Objectively, Band 1.  Which is the better way of running a high school band for the benefit of students?  My money’s on Band 2.

What’s the purpose of high school theater?

My son has been a part of theater, not the acting side, but the tech side, for three years.  He has loved set design and construction and the ability to use power tools to build.  As he continued, he enjoyed being an older kid teaching the freshmen what to do.  Sound and lights and stage management gave him more skills but, more importantly, real-world experience with working with others, both with a “leadership” role and with the day-to-day reality of managing conflict. I imagine parents whose kids were involved on the acting side would have other skills on their list, not just developing acting/singing ability but the deeper interpersonal skills, the confidence from getting up a stage, etc.

Which meant that I was genuinely disappointed when, several years ago at the Thespian Awards night, the teacher handing out those awards and celebrating the seniors reserved her highest praise for students who wanted to go into theater professionally.

Is this a result of the push for “career pathways”?  Are we losing sight of the more intangible ways that kids can benefit from these programs?  High school electives and co-curricular activities are — or should be — about so much more than just career exploration or preparation, or building a good college application.

Finally, is it a good thing to be a “destination district”?

Stevenson is a Destination District.  New Trier is, too.  Parents look for homes in those areas because of the reputation of the schools.  Even homebuyers without kids (or who don’t expect to stick around until their kids reach high school age) will target these districts because they expect property values to outpace neighboring areas, so that their homes will be “good investments” even if they are already more expensive than nearby.

Is District 214 a “destination district”?  That’s what they call themselves, and that’s the board’s objective.  It’s my understanding that parents right now target Hersey and Prospect and are willing to pay more for houses in those neighborhoods.  Whether a parent chooses a home in a neighborhood that sends its kids to one of the other schools, in preference to other districts entirely, I don’t know.

Does it benefit the district administration to be known as a “destination”?  Sure, it becomes a source of pride for the administration and the school board.  And it’s a virtuous cycle as far as student achievement goes, when families who are particularly motivated to have their kids do well, send them to “destination” schools, increasing the achievement level of those schools and further boosting their desirability to motivated parents.  Residents are also willing to pay higher property taxes because they see it as an “investment” in their home values.

But does it benefit the students to be a “destination district”?  I’m skeptical.  To be a “destination” requires focusing on high-achieving students, so that parents who want their kids to attend the most prestigious schools they can gain admission to, will perceive that school as helping them achieve their goals.  But schools and school districts don’t have unlimited resources and students don’t have unlimited time.  There are opportunity costs.  This might mean that kids with IEPs or other special needs are given fewer resources.  The pursuit to boost the enrollment in Dual Credit courses could mean that a kid who really would benefit from extra focus on a solid grounding in the fundamentals is instead steered towards a dual credit course, which (given the Harper Promise program) might be better after graduation instead.

And does it benefit the community?  Ironically, Elizabeth Warren, back before she became a senator, let alone a presidential candidate, wrote a book called The Two-Income Trap, in which she identified the fact that students are limited to the school in their catchment area and the consequent hunt for the best school district as something that makes sense for any individual family but has the effect of driving up the cost of housing for everybody.  One of her proposals was actually a schools-of-choice program and, in fact, in Michigan, where kids can choose their neighborhood school, another school in their district, or a school in a neighboring district, and their (mostly) equalized-across-the-state school funding will go to their chosen school, it is my impression that this push to live in the catchment district with the best school is much less of an issue.

*Disclosure: these are generalizations and not intended to describe precisely any two specific marching bands, though anyone who knows me personally can probably guess which bands I’m basing these on.

from wikipedia,; Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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