North Hills music program recognized for outstanding achievement, growth
While some school districts across the country are being forced to slash their music programs, North Hills School District is garnering state-wide accolades for expanding theirs.
In the past six years, the district has added three new music teachers, increased the number of music classes and ensembles offered, and nearly doubled student participation in orchestra to about 350 students and marching band to 224 students.
The district also provides its students with free summer music programs and camps.
In all, eight out of every 10 students in the district have taken part in a music class or related activity during the 2017-18 school year, according to Amanda Hartle, director of communications and development at the district.
This accomplishment is being recognized by the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA), which will honor North Hills with three of its six prestigious annual awards during its 2018 Conference in Lancaster on April 21.
Superintendent Dr. Pat Mannarino will receive the PMEA Outstanding Superintendent Award, which recognizes chief school administrators who demonstrate a high commitment to music education in their schools. High school band director and music teacher Len Lavelle will be honored with a PMEA Citation of Excellence award for his lasting contributions to the district's band program, and instrumental music teacher Chris Ballentine will take home the PMEA Outstanding Young Music Educator Award.
“We always get several nominations for high-quality candidates, and this year was no exception,” said Dennis Emert, a music teacher at Fox Chapel Area School District and chairman of the PMEA Selection Committee, which chose this year's award winners.
“We selected Dr. Mannarino because of what he did above and beyond what others did — he added music positions and increased budgets. That's unheard of. That really showed his support for music at North Hills,” Emert explained.
Throughout his six-year tenure as the district's superintendent, Mannarino has been a staunch supporter of music education. He knows how music can foster creativity, collaboration, teamwork and math skills.
“We're interested in educating the whole child. Every school district offers math and science. It's the things we do with music, drama, arts, and other electives that separate us from the rest. We've branched out with different courses like a drumming class and guitar lessons. These courses draw students to music and keep them interested,” said Mannarino, who showed his support by borrowing a guitar and attending a few guitar classes when they first began.
Steve Ehrlich, an orchestra teacher at East Allegheny School District, nominated Lavelle and Ballentine for their awards. Ehrlich has had two children enrolled in North Hills' Band program.
“With Len and Chris, you get quality music performances. They're great role models and great gentlemen. The recruiting levels for band and orchestra are at their highest levels ever at North Hills. These awards honor excellence in the classroom and leadership at the highest levels,” he said.
Lavelle, a North Hills alumnus who has been teaching band and orchestra at his alma mater for the past 10 years, is humbled by the award but appreciates that his students are being recognized.
“That's what this award is. It's our students being recognized for the great things they're doing on a daily basis, day in and day out. Our kids are learning music at a really high level, and they're invested in the program,” he said. “Success breeds more success. When students see something successful, they want to be a part of it. They want to know that the hard work they're putting into it means something.”
Ballentine, who took a full-time position at North Hills immediately after completing his student-teaching there three years ago, said he couldn't be happier with the direction of the program.
“It's a really exciting time for music here,” he said. “The kids are the best part of the job. They make it exciting every day.”
Across the district, North Hills employs 12 music teachers. From K-12, the music program includes seven orchestras, a rock orchestra, 10 choirs, 11 concert bands, three jazz ensembles, a marching band, a guitar ensemble, a world drumming ensemble, two annual musical productions, and courses in music theory, electronic music, and general music.
“Mr. Lavelle knows how to make music — not just playing notes, but truly creating something special. I have had so much fun in his class. Going to orchestra is the highlight of my day,” said junior Emma Margo, 16, who plays the cello in the school's string orchestra and chamber orchestra.
“I truly believe that Mr. Ballentine's goal is to make everyone not only a better musician, but also a more confident player and person overall. Although he has only been in the North Hills School District for a few years, he has already created a new ensemble, our chamber orchestra, which has completely enriched our orchestra program,” added senior cello player Olivia Burik, 18.
As an additional distinction for the district, its 50-member High School Wind Ensemble has been selected to perform a 45-minute concert at the PMEA Conference, an honor the premier band has earned four times in the past four years of eligibility.
“It's a highly selective process to be chosen. Being recognized by fellow music teachers as a model ensemble and performing at such a high level for such a discerning audience is equivalent to winning a state championship in sports,” Lavelle said.
PMEA is a statewide non-profit organization of more than 4,500 members comprised of music teachers from preschool through college level, as well as professionals in the music industry, merchandising, and publishing, which promotes and supports quality music education and performance in schools and communities throughout Pennsylvania.
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.