Arts” (FOCUS ON ADVOCACY: How “Save Upper Darby ASUDA) Gave Voice to a Pennsylvania Community’s Passion for the Arts

In This Article:

On April 10, 2012, at the monthly Upper Darby School District (UDSD) board meeting, the school district’s assistant superintendent proposed an Academic Realignment Plan for the 2012-13 school year

It targeted the elimination of teaching positions at the elementary (art, music, library, physical education) and middle school (foreign language, technology) levels, as well as:

* Elimination of elementary related arts classes (art, music, library, and physical education) with related arts instruction to occur within the existing core curriculum.
* Implementation of a rotating block schedule at Beverly Hills Middle School, the same block schedule that currently exists at Drexel Hill Middle School.
* Elimination of the three-year middle school foreign language program with Spanish to be offered only to eligible eighth graders.
Elimination of technology classes with some technology content to be incorporated into current computer education classes. 
* Implementation of middle school level character education classes.
* Modification and reduction of district supervisory positions (from 13 to 4).

Sound familiar? Similar proposals had already been introduced in Pittsburgh and Allentown, PA. Would the fate of the Upper Darby Arts Programs be any different? Could the arts truly be saved?
While the programs remain vulnerable to cuts, community arts advocates united under one powerful belief:

Taking Action Makes The Difference!

Use of Social Media: Within 24 hours of this public announcement, a “Save the Music in Upper Darby” Facebook page linked more than 12,000 supporters in less than two weeks. Thanks to widespread communication, organized demonstrations occurred at every school board meeting. With over 1,000 people (including school children) attending school board meetings, local television and radio stations covered the story and SaveUpperDarbyArts (SUDA) began.

SUDA quickly created an online petition via to prepare for a trip to Harrisburg and caught the attention of local bi-partisan politicians tuned into their constituents’ concerns. The Facebook page, PA Leadership Advocacy Network (PLAN), connected SUDA to other arts-starved districts (Reading, Pittsburgh, Allentown) and sparked state-wide communication among organizations, advocates and educators who compared stories of success and mistakes and created new arts advocacy partnerships.

Support by Local Media: As large demonstrations were held at each school board meeting, the local television stations, seeing the power in numbers, fanned the flame of interest and kept the community talking about the arts crisis. On a local radio program, Governor Tom Corbett was questioned about the ethics of such massive cuts to public schools, and specifically to UDSD. He replied that they should start spending down their emergency funds if they wanted to keep programs going. The editor of the Delaware County Daily Times seized the opportunity to interview former UDSD superintendents and local art supporters who spoke out against the Academic Realignment Plan. By providing live webcasts of roundtable discussions and interviews with local parents, politicians, administrators, and students, the Delco Times made “SUDA” a household name in the Upper Darby community.

Youth-Supported Passion and Grassroots Energy: While seasoned community leaders exposed the Upper Darby situation using the media and local town meetings, two college students who were UDSD alumni worked around the clock to keep communications and commentary going. Passionate arts-educated parents and community leaders made headway for the SUDA cause with art shows, lemonade stands, SUDA yard signs, and daily door-to-door petitioning to raise awareness and prepare for the trip to Harrisburg. At each school board meeting, UDSD children publicly spoke up for their teachers and their favorite ‘special’ subject – singing for their cause, drawing about how art affects them personally and holding impromptu concerts. Silent protests using artistic methods occurred before every board meeting and SUDA signs were prevalent in the audience at each meeting. Save Upper Darby Arts quickly became a community effort!

A Quality Arts Program Graduating Quality People: Upper Darby Alumni played a huge role in SUDA’s success. They connected with nationwide arts organizations and generated arts blogs and web videos to express their disbelief at the proposed cuts to one of Pennsylvania’s strongest arts programs. A viral video created by Upper Darby alumni, including staff of The Tonight Show, began with “I Am Not a Failure…” and encouraged UD alumni nationwide to “Tell Us Your Story.” One email from Upper Darby alumna, actress Tina Fey, launched a string of celebrity tweets amongst her friends Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and Rosario Dawson and brought SUDA full throttle national recognition just as the deadline for the board’s final vote approached. MSNBC’s The Ed Show posted the SUDA video on their website. Former Education Secretary Diane Ratvich and The Chicago Tribune also joined the public outcry over Upper Darby’s crisis.

Added Strength from Upper Darby’s Music Man: Following the March 2009 passing of award-winning music teacher, Brad Schoener, Upper Darby community members had created the Annual Schoener 5K Walk/Run and Music Marathon to honor his love for children and music. It provides instruments, lessons, and the “Schoener MusicMan Camp” for disadvantaged Upper Darby students. Students, parents, administrators, and teachers were already passionate about the music programs in the district and the Schoener Music Marathon provided another strong arts advocacy platform: supporters of Brad’s dreams for his students were not going to take another loss easily.

The Result: Through combined online and canvassing efforts, SUDA collected over 22,000 petition signatures and raised awareness to over 5 million people worldwide. SUDA presented the petition signatures in Harrisburg and held a June 2012 rally on the Capitol steps. Representative James Roebuck, Jr., Chair of the PA House Education Committee, stopped by to speak.
SUDA efforts, in conjunction with concerted involvement by local PA Representatives, Margo Davidson and Nicholas Micozzie, brought back $2,726,000 to UDSD and created statewide outrage against public education cuts. This resulted in an increase in Accountability Block Grant funding that affected school districts all across the state: UDSD saved 45 teacher positions with this additional funding. It wasn't a perfect win… but it was a miracle nonetheless.

The Future of SUDA: Upper Darby’s troubles are far from over. As the new budget is unveiled in the upcoming months, will the arts be at risk in Spring 2013? Two charter schools have applied to open in the UDSD. If funding and students are taken away from the public school due to charter schools, how will the school board handle the financial crisis? The arts educators’ teaching positions were reinstated in Fall 2012, but there was also much scurrying to create a new plan of ‘arts integration’ designed to use the arts to improve test scores and heighten student learning: How will this affect the quality of the Upper Darby Arts programs?

SUDA will re-launch soon as a statewide movement focusing on the political issues of educational funding and standardized testing. The Upper Darby Parents’ Coalition, a group created by former SUDA parents, is monitoring policy decisions of local elected officials and educating the public about how these decisions will impact the quality of their children’s education.

The Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation is creating a new strategic plan to focus on the essential needs of the school district. Thanks to a charitable grant from Phillies Charities, Inc., the Upper Darby Township, Upper Darby School District and the Brad Schoener Fund are joining together to create a 2013 summer music camp for Upper Darby children.

Clearly passion for the arts in Upper Darby is thriving, but will it be enough to survive the continuing battles over school funding? These recent successes have been widely celebrated, and SUDA managed to create an arts awareness that is still very much in the spotlight. SUDA caused an entire community to speak out for what was crucially important in their children’s education. Upper Darby citizens are not apathetic. People there are passionate about maintaining the quality of their arts programs for the future of their community. This passion gives Upper Darby arts programs a fighting chance.