Brian Biederman, 24, a middle school music teacher in Nashville, Tenn., fulfilled his lifetime dream of starting a music camp this summer. The Littlestone Summer Music Academy brought together 23 seventh through twelfth graders from diverse backgrounds to make music together.
As a youngster, Brian discovered his own niche when he attended music camp for the first time when he was 11-years-old. He later worked at music camp for several summers, and formed lifetime friendships as he honed his musical talent.
“My dad said that camp for me was what I did in between school.”
“I attended the same camp as my dad,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to go to band camp at first, but my dad told me to try it for two weeks. Within three days, I wanted to extend my stay for two weeks. I ended up staying four weeks. I knew immediately that I had to be part of the music camp community one day –as a patron, participant or to start my own camp.”
About 10 years ago, Brian, a 2010 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville who holds a master’s degree from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education, began planning how he would start his own music camp.
This year his dream came to fruition.
Brian comes from a family tradition of not only music, but also of community service. His parents, Debbie and Mitchell Biederman of Commack, N.Y., are co-presidents of Helping Hands, a Long Island based charity that provides essentials to struggling families. With the advice and support of his parents, Brian created an educational non-profit organization.
“I contacted everyone I knew,” Brian recalled. “I found a private school — Montgomery Bell Academy — which agreed to let me hold the camp there.”
Brian kept cutting the tuition until he got 23 students to sign up. He also made special arrangements for those who couldn’t afford to pay, and asked friends and professors from the Vanderbilt community for donations to help pay the staff.
“I wanted to let anyone come who wanted to,” he said. “I wanted to provide an opportunity for young people who don’t feel comfortable in a school environment. And I wanted to create a community where kids were comfortable and confident in looking at and playing music.”
Brian said he endeavored to blur the lines to have a mix of kids from diverse ethnic and socio-economic levels making music together.
“Let’s all make music together; it’s not where you come from,” he said. “Music is bigger than all of us.”
The finale of the summer season was a performance by Littlestone’s Festival Choir. Brian said the concert celebrated the diverse cultures of the students, and all students and staff participated.
For next year, Brian is looking to recruit more students, bring in guest artists, and raise money for more scholarships for students who would otherwise be unable to attend. He also hopes to start a community choir in Nashville.
Top 10 Back-to-School List for Parents
Back-to-school supplies have hit the store shelves reminding us that summer won’t last forever. Yes, the first day of school is on the horizon, and that means getting your children ready. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the grade of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops. The average parent will spend $600 on school supplies, clothes, backpacks, and sports equipment.
Many parents will put a lot of thought into their children’s Back-to-School List. But preparing your kids for school is only half the battle to ensure a successful school year. Parents, too, have to be prepared, as full partners with the schools. From my perspective, it’s not enough to obsess about the list the school gives you. The list they don’t give you is equally, if not more, important. Here’s my list for parents, one that will serve you and your children well in the coming school year.
- Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all your children’s teachers, principal, other school administrators, and school nurse.
- Find out if anything that might affect your child has changed since the last school year. With budget cuts, schools have reduced services and personnel, so just don’t assume that everything is the same. Are time schedules the same? Does your child still have bus service? Are there any late buses? Does your school district still offer full-day kindergarten? Is the person you expected to be your child’s teacher still there, or has she been excessed or moved? Does the school have the same principal and assistant principals? Have sports or music or art been reduced?
- Know your school and school district websites, and check them frequently for calendar changes, meeting announcements and minutes, news, policies and procedures, and other information.
- Find out how your school communicates important information with parents and then be alert to those messages. Is it by automated phone message, e-mail blasts, electronically through systems such as Parent Portal, newsletters, snail-mail, or in your kids’ backpacks?
- Keep the school calendar in an accessible area and check it frequently.
- Find out when Meet-the-Teacher evenings are held, and do your best to attend them for each of your children even if they’re seniors in high school. If you can’t attend, contact the teachers to let them know you are an interested and involved parent.
- Know when PTA meetings are held, attend them, and become an active member. This is the single, best way to keep informed and become involved in your children’s schools.
- Know when and where Board of Education meetings are held, attend them, and feel free to voice your opinion during the public participation part of the meeting if you have something important you want to share. You must sign up to speak before the meeting.
- Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the Board of Education members and the District Clerk. In public school districts, trustees are elected by the residents and are usually responsive to their constituents’ opinions and problems.
- Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of your Superintendent of Schools and other district-wide administrators. If your child has a particular issue, such as a medical problem, food allergy, or learning disability, it’s important to know the name and contact information for the central office administrator in charge of that issue. Although it is always desirable to follow the chain of command, i.e., teacher or school nurse, then principal, sometimes it’s necessary to go to a higher level in advocating for your child. Be proactive and have that information at your fingertips in case it’s needed.
Last week, I attended my grandson’s pre-school “graduation” and it reminded me that students of all ages will be embarking on new school careers in the fall. If your child will be attending a new school come September – elementary, secondary or pre-school — check out my guest post on Parenting’s “Class Notes”
Blog: Tips for Transitioning to a New School. Whether you are moving to a new neighborhood or your child is “moving up” to a new level, there are steps you can take right now to ease the transition.
Curbing the Enthusiasm of Graduation Guests
Speaking of graduations, it’s the season for high school graduations and according to the Associated Press (AP), some schools are showing no tolerance for loud and sustained cheering by guests. For example, a mother was handcuffed at one school on a disorderly conduct charge. At another school, the principal admonished four graduates for the excessive cheering of their family and friends — and meted out consequences to the students! Although they have already fulfilled all of the graduation requirements, they now must perform 20 hours of community service to receive their diplomas.
Is it fair to curb the enthusiasm of guests celebrating this important milestone? What do you think about punishing graduates for the behavior of their friends and family?
Another rite of passage that goes hand in hand with high school graduation is the prom. An increasing number of school districts have implemented sobriety tests to cut down on pre-prom drinking. In addition, they have purchased alcohol-detection devices in an attempt to keep students safe.
According to a Newsday report, staff members have been trained in sobriety testing of students in at least 11 Long Island school districts. These include: Smithtown, Cold Spring Harbor, Connetquot, Hewlett-Woodmere, Islip, Long Beach, Northport-East Northport, Rockville Centre, Shoreham-Wading River, Three Village and West Islip.
A spokesman for Advanced Safety Devices, the Chatsworth, Calif., company that sells the Breathalyzer brand tester, told Newsday that it was unusual for school districts to purchase these devices in the past, but in recent years sales have increased to schools throughout the country.
While school administrators claim the tests are effective and have made a difference in preventing drinking, critics question whether educators should be administering sobriety tests to students.
Nine LI Budgets Pass in Revote
In a last hurrah to the school budget season, nine Long Island districts held revotes on Tuesday. In the first vote on May 15, seven of those districts had attempted unsuccessfully to override the two percent tax cap that became law in New York State this year. Eight of the nine reduced their budgets for the second round, this time adhering to the two percent tax cap.
Only one district – Elmont – submitted a 4.9 percent budget increase to the voters. A bit more than the required 60 percent of voters approved the budget, enabling the district to exceed the cap.
Clearly, New York State districts have entered a new era in school budgeting. How will the tax cap continue to impact Long Island schools, which pride themselves on being among the best in the country? During this budget season, a number of schools were closed, teachers were excessed, class size was increased, and educational programs were reduced.
What will be on the chopping block next year? Stay tuned.
In her K-12 Parents and the Public blog in Education Week, Michele Molnar wrote this week about the importance of parents staying engaged in schools over the summer. I couldn’t agree more.
She wrote about my friend, Myrdin Thompson of Louisville, Ky., who is the regional director for the central states of the National Family Engagement Alliance. Myrdin is quoted as saying that she recently contacted a school board member in her own school system to find out if her district would be applying for Race to the Top funding in the new district-grant competition.
This is but one example of how she recommends parents stay focused on school issues even though it’s summer. She notes that summer is not the time to take a break from school involvement. If parents are shy about contacting district officials, they can always get in touch with their parent organization leaders.
As someone who spent countless summers working in central administration as a district official, I urge you not to be shy. I can assure you that administrators are in your school district and in your schools even though it’s July or August. Although there is much work and planning going on, it’s also a bit more relaxed for the most part without students and teachers. And that means administrators will be available to speak with you on the phone and meet with you in person.
There are also board of education meetings over the summer. Important decisions are made in the dog days of summer, particularly in regard to hiring. If you can’t make it to the meetings, catch up with reports in your local media. Minutes of board meetings should also be posted on district websites. Remember, too, that the public elects board members and it is their job to represent you and report to you.
Depending on the district, principals typically work at least part of the summer. If you find out when your principal is at the school, it’s a good time to have a casual chat. You will notice that many principals are dressed down during the break — sans ties and jackets for men, and suits and pumps for women. So stop by the school in your shorts and sandals, and use the opportunity to find out the information you want to know as well as sharing your issues with your principal. These could include specific challenges your child has, such as health and learning concerns, or the status of particular programs in regard to budget cuts. Good principals are visible and accessible, both during the school year and the summer.
Towards the end of the summer, many teachers will be in school setting up their classrooms. It’s a great time to introduce yourself and your child, and find out about the teacher’s plans and expectations.
Contact your PTA or PTO leaders during the summer not only to get information about your school and district, but also to volunteer for the coming school year. Getting involved is not only the best way to learn the ropes of your school and district, but also to help your child succeed.
This week I look forward to attending the Brentwood (N.Y.) High School Awards Night as a presenter of two scholarships in memory of my father, Herbert Fischman, who was a teacher and principal in the school district for 25 years. With this gesture, I will join with many other individuals and groups who together award hundreds of scholarships to Brentwood’s deserving graduates. I suspect that we are all part of a much larger group this spring who will also donate scholarships to high school graduates across the country.
In these difficult economic times, it hardly seems like a $500 or $1,000 scholarship makes a difference, but it does. Many of the students are awarded multiple scholarships, so while most of the individual awards are modest, they can add up — and numerous students receive sizeable support.
But it’s not just about the money. It’s about honoring young people who have excelled in spite of adversity, and who passionately want a shot at college. One of those Brentwood graduates, Samantha Garvey, made national headlines earlier this year when she was named a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Competition while her family was living in a homeless shelter. She is president of her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, and has a 3.9 grade point average.
But you don’t need to have Samantha’s resume to receive a scholarship. The more that are available, the more opportunity there is to acknowledge young people who work hard to do their very best, as well as those who exemplify character traits that our communities and country desperately need, such as service and caring. I have to confess that the scholarship was not my idea. Vicki Novak, a Brentwood graduate who later became president of the Smithtown Council of PTAs, had the council donate the scholarship when my father died in 2005 and I was the administrative liaison to the PTA Council.
It wasn’t until three years ago while writing a book with my husband and brother that a light bulb went off in my head. Our book is about honoring memories and carrying on legacies, and the idea for the scholarship came from two of our interviewees — Nick Clooney, the father of George Clooney and brother of Rosemary Clooney, and Yeou-Cheng Ma, the sister of cellist Yo Yo Ma. Both separately suggested that one of the most accessible ways of honoring a loved one was to establish a scholarship in his or her memory. It was then that I made the commitment to continue the scholarship each year.
While the students are the recipients of the scholarships, attending the assembly and presenting the scholarships has been both cathartic and therapeutic for me. For example, I met retired teachers who worked in my father’s school and who shared with me their reminiscences, as well as their affection and admiration for my dad. In addition, listening to others speak about their loved ones confirmed that dedicating a scholarship, no matter what the amount, helps to keep alive the memory of those who are no longer here.
Since establishing the Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship, I have met some amazing students, parents, teachers, and principals. Some of the past recipients have sent me thank you notes expressing their appreciation.
One female student wrote:
“It is with great appreciation that I thank you and your family for allowing me to be one of the recipients of the $500 Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship. Words can’t describe how grateful my family and I are for your help towards my future. In this economy every little bit helps.”
And a young man who was on his way to an Ivy League college wrote the following:
“I would like to thank you for your generosity and support toward my college education. I would also like to pay respect to your father since he did serve in the community for an outstanding 25 years and is most likely respected by former colleagues and students. It still must be tough to cope with this loss since it is just over five years, but I know he still lives through people like you who give back to the community of Brentwood.
I am of Mexican and Haitian descent and I will be the first in my family to attend college.
I am blessed that I am one of the recipients of your scholarship. I will work hard to keep the spirit of your father alive and I will not let you down.”
In these difficult economic times where discretionary funds are diminishing, a scholarship, no matter how small, can enhance the life of a young person. It also perpetuates the living memory of a loved one.
Unfortunately, these tests are being used for very high stakes decisions. For example, in New York, 40 percent (in Florida, 50 percent) of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on test scores. The pitfalls in standardized testing were recently exemplified by a ridiculous question on a New York State about a pineapple racing a hare!
Standardized testing, and its concomitant problems — such as teachers being forced to teach to these tests — is a huge concern in education today. Parents need to keep informed about this as well as many other school issues.
How informed a parent are you? Here’s a pop quiz for parents. There are no trick questions!
1. How would you characterize your relationship to the professionals in your children’s school(s)?
(a) I know the names of my children’s teachers, principal, and central office staff, but do not interact with them.
(b) I have a cordial relationship with them, and am comfortable contacting them about issues or problems.
(c) I resent their salaries and benefits.
(d) I don’t interact with them.
2. How would you describe your involvement in your PTA and district?
(a) I attend PTA and Board of Education meetings and take an active part.
(b) My spouse attends some meetings, talks to the PTA president, and keeps me informed.
(c) I’ve been to a couple, but think these meetings are a waste of time.
(d) I have no idea when meetings are held and never attend them.
3. How do you get information about your school and district?
(a) I check school and district websites on a regular basis.
(b) I read local newspapers and online media, check school and district websites, and speak to teachers, administrators, and Board of Education members.
(c) I am generally too busy to keep informed, but if there’s an issue I speak to my neighbors.
(d) I don’t get involved in politics and have no idea of what’s going on.
4. How involved are you in the 2012-2013 budget process?
(a) I have been following issues in local media, and plan to vote.
(b) I have regularly attended budget and Board of Education meetings.
(c) I haven’t been involved, but I don’t like the excessive spending.
(d) I can’t be bothered and I want to move to North Carolina.
5. How satisfied are you with the quality of education in your school district?
(a) I am very pleased with my children’s teachers, but am concerned about cuts to educational programs.
(b) I moved here because of the district’s reputation, and my children are flourishing.
(c) My taxes are rising and I’m not so sure it’s worth it.
(d) I am dissatisfied and disillusioned.
6. If your child were a victim of bullying in school, what would you do?
(a) I would speak to my child’s teacher and brainstorm solutions and strategies.
(b) I would check the school’s bullying policy, and would ask for a meeting with the teacher, principal, and guidance counselor.
(c) I would complain to my friends.
(d) I would do nothing, and hope that it would stop.
If you answered mostly a’s and b’s, Congratulations — you are an involved parent!
If your answers were mostly c’s and d’s, it’s time you got more involved in your children’s education. Research indicates that the more parents are involved in their child’s schools, the more successful their child will be.
A child’s best advocate is an informed parent.