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Uniontown teacher decries cutbacks in arts, music

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Rebecca Gartley, a longtime art teacher in the Uniontown Area School District, voiced concerns about the district's ongoing cutbacks in its art and music programs at a recent school board meeting.

“I have been teaching art for 13 years — my first 10 at Ben Franklin and now at the high school,” Gartley told school board members. “I absolutely love what I do. It is my calling and my passion. It is my deepest-held belief that the arts healed me from childhood trauma and helped me to become fairly intelligent, happy and well-rounded.”

During her 13-year career, Gartley said, she has been proud to teach in the Uniontown Area School District, where every child — all the way up to eighth grade — was receiving art and music classes each year.

“I have bragged to my colleagues across the state of our district's support of the arts,” she said. “I believe this is part of the reason so many of our students go on to higher education.”

Gartley said she now believes the children's critical-arts experiences and the school district's future have been threatened.

“As art, music and other related-arts teachers have retired or taken positions outside the district, they are not being replaced with new hires,” Gartley said.

As a result, no art classes have been offered to Ben Franklin students in third through fifth grades. No music classes are provided to kindergarteners, first- and second-graders. Music classes have doubled in size for students in third through fifth grades.

At Lafayette school, the district doesn't offer any art classes for kindergarten through fifth grade. No wood-shop classes are available for seventh- and eighth-graders.

All district schools must share a few librarians, Schools have many days that the library is closed, “depriving our students of opportunities for reading and research,” Gartley said.

Gartley said the French program was recently eliminated at the high school.

“And we all know the importance of studying a foreign language, which is still a requirement with many universities,” she said. “Also, at the high school, one teacher is expected to handle all music classes, band, chorus and the musical.”

Gartley said it is well researched and documented that the arts are integral in the education of the whole student.

“The arts are not just a fun outlet for our children — they are a critical part of a child's development,” Gartley said. “No one expects every child to grow up to be Rembrandt or Mozart, but the arts are what makes us human. It is our birthright.”

Gartley said Uniontown Area School District had a wonderful legacy with the arts for at least as many years as her mother, Nancy Handford McChesney, can remember.

Gartley said her mother, a 1958 graduate of the Uniontown School District, credits her life as an artist and healer to Bob Lyons, who taught her for many years.

“Sadly, this legacy is under attack, as evidenced by the aforementioned issues as well as the cutting of drama and art clubs from the junior high schools last year and the moving of Angela Capuzzi's art supplies to the shop room last week,” she said. “This beautiful new art room at Lafayette — that the taxpayers funded for the use of Lafayette's art students — has become a classroom for alternative education.”

Gartley said she was motivated to speak about the curriculum changes.

“I feel that a pattern of disdain for the arts is insidiously infiltrating our district,” she said. “Ultimately, it is our children who are suffering the consequences.”

Gartley said she is aware of funding cutbacks imposed on public schools by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, and financial problems in the Uniontown school district.

“But I want to go on record for my efforts of raising the public's awareness,” she said. “If no one speaks up for the arts, related arts and foreign languages, I fear that they will disappear from our beloved district — thus depriving our children of the rich, lifelong learning experiences provided in visual arts, music, related arts and foreign languages.”

After the meeting, Superintendent Charles Machesky said the school board was forced to make decisions based on the district's financial situation for the 2011-12 school year.

“We did have to make cutbacks in some of our programs, and those cutbacks impacted our students,” Machesky said.

Machesky said he is hoping that the school district can begin to strengthen the school curriculum and offer more classes, including arts, music and foreign languages, to students in the future.

Gartley said she hopes that school board members, administrators, parents, students and concerned taxpayers will add their voices to support arts in the schools.

“Let's get creative and find ways to keep the arts in Uniontown,” she said.

Cindy Ekas is a freelance writer.

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