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When School Makes Life Impossible for a Young Musician

Karen Rile

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Published: September 12, 2014 at 5:36 AM [UTC]

Photo courtesy of Kate Patterson and The Washington Post
Photo courtesy of Kate Patterson and The Washington Post

A few days ago the blogosphere erupted in outrage over a Washington Post column about a gifted young musician who was charged with truancy—even though she maintained a straight-A average—because she missed ten days of seventh grade.

Thirteen-year-old Avery Gagliano is a bit of a phenom. She performed on From The Top at ten and went on to win international competitions all the while keeping up her schoolwork at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., which is known as one of best public schools in the city. Nonetheless, Avery's ten absences were deemed "unexcused" by school authorities, despite a built-in loophole that gives administrators latitude to excuse absences for unusual circumstances

"Avery Gagliano is piano royalty being treated like a criminal," said From The Top host Chris O'Riley, in a public Facebook post, one of the many iterations of the story that appeared this week on social media.

Avery's parents appealed to the school district, submitting a portfolio of her musical achievements, including international appearances and competitions, plus an independent study plan for days that she might miss during future touring. But they were rebuffed and their daughter was declared "chronically truant". Backed against the wall, Avery's frustrated parents reluctantly withdrew their daughter from Deal Middle School. This year, she'll be homeschooled.

Say what you will: the D.C. school district was being rigid, unfair, mindless, inept, overwrought, dysfunctional, whatever. The fact is, public education in the US is an entitlement, but our right is to a basic education; we don't get to dictate the particulars. Public school systems are decentralized, so the scenario and the rules can vary drastically, even from city to neighboring suburbs. Because they lived in that particular district, Avery drew a short stick.

A few years ago, in my own city, I had an experience like the Gaglianos—slapped with a truancy summons—goody-two-shoes me, who rarely gets a parking ticket!—when my 9th grade violinist missed too many days of school, despite her excellent GPA. If we'd lived a few miles away in the suburbs, our kids would have enjoyed an entirely different public education experience in a well-funded, manicured school that would have put them on the "pre-professional" track and allowed them time for practice and rehearsals, and to make up work missed during travel, exactly as Avery's parents had sensibly proposed. But, tough luck, the way the dice rolled we didn't get that opportunity. And, like Avery's parents, we had to deal with it.

Life is short; childhood is shorter. Sometimes you have to shift gears to support your kid. Like Avery's parents, we couldn't afford to send our daughter to a private high school where her needs for practicing and travel would be accommodated. So we cobbled out a solution. In my daughter's case, this was a charter cyber school. That's right: she transferred from the highest-ranked urban public magnet school to an internet-based school. When I told my friends what we'd decided I could hear their jaws dropping across the phone connection. How could we pass up the best public school in Pennsylvania in favor of cyber school—and, was cyber education even legit?

But you do what you have to. Life was impossible in her old school, and there was no way, in the short time of her childhood, we could make it different.

And, you know what? It was okay. It was pretty good, even. Our daughter had a different high school experience than we'd thought she would. Instead of AP Chem, she had regular chemistry. And she learned it. She participated in online discussion boards where she had to engage in civil debate with kids whose basic assumptions about science, religion, and ethics were completely different from that of anyone she knew. And that's an education: stepping out far from one's comfortable nest of like-minded peers. As I often tell my kids, sometimes the most valuable lessons aren't even on the syllabus.

Cyber school was lonely, often. She had her sisters, of course, and her musician friends at pre-college. Her old school friends kept in touch, but as my daughter delved deeper into the professional music world, she had less and less time and energy for dances and parties. Life is about choices and compromise; at this point in her education, as a first-year grad student, she is well glad she made the decision to leave her public school when she did.

Bonus: it's character-building, if painful, to feel like an outlier sometimes. You get stronger when you're not always nurtured and appreciated for doing your best. Given our druthers, of course, we'd all choose to be coddled and supported. But the real world doesn't work like that. If you want to make a living in a tough industry like classical music, you need to be tough. When my daughter's school gave her the cold shoulder and sent us seeking out educational alternatives, our family got an off-the-syllabus schooling that tuition couldn't buy.


[Addendum: It's come to light that the DC Public School District has issued a statement refuting the report by Washington Post writer Petula Dvorak. According to School District officials, the truancy citation was auto-generated by a computer program when Avery reached ten absences, and the family was advised to ignore the letter, and that the issue would not escalate further. "We are very proud of Avery’s accomplishments throughout her entire educational career as a DC public school student, and we are hopeful that her parents will enroll her back at her back at Deal Middle School soon," says the press release.]

[Second Addendum: Read Petula Dvorak's detailed response to the School District's press release.]

Posted on September 12, 2014 at 6:15 PM
Also be sure to read the Washington Post's follow-up article with a response from the school district plus additional info:
From Karen Rile
Posted on September 12, 2014 at 9:35 PM
Thanks-- here it is as a hotlink.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 13, 2014 at 4:34 AM
Schools do so much communicating these days through electronically-generated e-mails and robo-calls, but I don't think that excuses them from taking responsibility for the content of those notes and calls. Especially when a certain number of truancies gets you into legal trouble!
Posted on September 13, 2014 at 3:02 PM
Public school and dare I say it, even a good bulk of private school, has gone off the rails.

School years are MUCH longer than they were 30 years ago. School days are longer, too. There is more homework. There are significantly more required credits. This is a good thing, right? Holding our kids to higher standards, right?


What is actually happening is that all children are being forced to fit into the same box. Into the same assumptions about what success is. Note the operative word: assumptions.

Yes, it takes courage and some pain to step outside of that, as Karen did with her daughter and with the subject of the post, but it is most necessary.

Long term, we need to scale back the cookie cutter overbooked style of schooling that we have backed ourselves into. School years need to shorten--I suggest 3 weeks as a good compromise. And in the Northeast, nobody really likes sending kinds to school on August 29. That is getting really tiresome.

Summer is a chance for the 30% who don't fit school *at all* to develop their skills, interests, character, and future aspirations. But it is only a consolation prize. Schooling for 6.5 hours a day with 3 more hours of homework, sitting in freaking chairs almost the whole time--when they are children. It is insane! Truly!

I'm not sure how we make progress against this trend. As Karen points out, schools are decentralized, and yet the federal overlay (mega$$$) is working to increase schooling even more--to year round, 6am to 6pm mandatory. I suppose we need to dismantle the federal part first while working even harder, within our own districts, to build more flexible, physically sensible school environments.

Posted on September 13, 2014 at 7:33 PM
In the early 1990s I was taking one kid out of school 15 minutes early one day a week for a violin lesson. We did this for three years, first, second, and third grades, until I could get him a later lesson time. At the time, no one was too fussed about it. My theory was that, since the school had no string program, we were supplying something the schools should have offered.

Today, each week we did that would count as a half-day unexcused absence and the truancy people would indeed become involved. Ridiculous.

Public schools do not work well for students on either end of the bell curve. While we would think they would be thrilled to count this girl as a product of the D.C. public schools, they find it too troublesome to make an exception for a truly exceptional student.

From Karen Rile
Posted on September 13, 2014 at 7:48 PM
A friend of mine raised an important point on a public Facebook post, which I will repeat here:

As it happens, the young violinist lives in my old neighborhood in DC. The middle school she attended is widely considered the very best public middle school (by far!) in the otherwise mostly extremely troubled DC public schools. There is, I am sure, a long waiting list of students outside her immediate neighborhood whose parents would love for their child to be able to attend the school, so the space she vacated has most likely gone to someone whose family really treasures the opportunity to attend the school (and probably will miss fewer school days.) Funding formulas for school budgets are generally based on ADA (average daily attendance) and there is a dollar cost to every day of school missed (excused or not excused.) The financial reality is that truancy is a huge problem in the DC public schools and computerized systems to deal with the problem do not have an easy way to deal with very rare and exceptional situations. Public schools, by their nature, must be designed to serve the overall public, and the DC public schools have a huge and overwhelming set of problems to face. Homeschooling or attending one of the private schools that have reached out to her or some combination of the above seems like a very good solution.

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