Skylar Galati, a junior at Kingsway Regional High School, is earning a varsity letter for her work on the stage, not on the field.
In a pioneering move, the 2,700-student Kingsway Regional School District in Gloucester County will begin conferring the honor on actors, singers, dancers, and other eligible students in the high school's well-regarded performing arts program.
A seven-inch fabric "K" similar to those earned by athletes will be awarded to Galati and about 100 of her peers at Kingsway's annual Performing Arts Banquet on March 19.
To which I say: Bravo!
"I'm looking forward to it," says Galati, a 17-year-old Mullica Hill resident. A soprano, she already has a resumé packed with semiprofessional and school performances in musical theater productions.
"The letters are fabulous," says her mother, Ceri, a paralegal who took it upon herself to launch the letters effort last year.
"Other parent groups in other districts have reached out to me to see how they can make this happen in their schools," she adds.
The New Jersey School Boards Association began calling for expansion of varsity letter criteria 35 years ago. It cites five other New Jersey high schools that award them for non-athletic accomplishments. Among them is Rancocas Valley Regional in Mount Holly, which has awarded varsity letters for academic achievement for the last 13 years.
Meanwhile, two bills to encourage expansion of varsity letter eligibility criteria statewide are under consideration in Trenton.
"We have more and more [competitive] interscholastic activities, such as robotics and chess teams, where kids spend enormous numbers of hours, just like athletes ... and don't get many accolades," says State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington).
She is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset) to encourage school districts to award letters to eligible students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities.
"A school letter is a big deal," says Allen. "For a long time, kids in competitions where the intellect was number one were not considered worthy of it."
Assembly members Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) and Jack Ciatarelli (R., Somerset) are co-sponsors of another bill, which would encourage schools to award varsity letters for eligible students in robotics and other competitive extracurricular activities.
At Kingsway, I catch up with Ceri and Skylar — she's in rehearsal for Mary Poppins, Kingsway's spring musical, as well as the All-South Jersey Chorus — as well as Jonathan Dalton. He's in his 37th year as choral and musical director, and is a longtime advocate of varsity letters for his students.
He notes that while the scope of eligibility for a varsity letter is being expanded, standards are not being made so flexible — in the way of, say, so-called participation awards — that the letter becomes less meaningful.
"The letters are great, because they're inclusive of all students, not just those at the top," he says, noting that students with backstage roles also are eligible.
"These kids are a community, and they support each other, and they are great cheerleaders for each other," Dalton continues, noting that the feeling "wasn't always reciprocated" by other students. "That's a whole less true now," he adds.
Perhaps it's due to the impact of TV shows such as The Voice, America's Got Talent, or even Glee.
Whatever the reason, there has been no real opposition to awarding letters to Kingsway students who sing as well as to those who sink baskets.
"I am happy to see our performing arts students have the opportunity," athletic director June Cioffi says. "They work extremely hard at their craft and put in just as many hours ... as our athletes do each season. I don't think it changes or takes anything away from athletics."
Says Kingsway Superintendent James J. Lavender, "We didn't get any pushback per se, but I did field some questions regarding why, and will this devalue the varsity letter?
"My short answer is, no, it will not," the superintendent adds.
To Skylar, elibigility for a varsity letter means that she and her peers "can be proud of who we are and proud of what we do. Proud of being performers who are part of the arts."