Upper Darby High School maintains a collection of impressively large trophies, showcasing decades of excellence. This spring, to no one's surprise, several more were added, top prizes at a national competition.
All this is not a boasting of athletic achievement; Upper Darby High's trophies are found in the chorus room and represent its outstanding success in music.
Down the hall is the 1,650-seat Performing Arts Center, home to Summer Stage, a theater partnership with the township whose founder, Harry Dietzler, won a prestigious Barrymore Award last fall. Among his proteges: Tina Fey, of 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live.
In many districts, music and art are regarded as largely the domain of middle- and upper-class children, often taught by private instructors. Not so in blue-collar Upper Darby, which prides itself on the scope of its offerings, its dedicated public school teachers, and an inclusive ethos. Even in recent years, with more low-income students, more ethnic diversity, and a shrinking local tax base, Upper Darby has offered arts and theater programs that surpass those in many more prosperous districts.
In a move akin to a district with championship athletic teams cutting sports, Upper Darby administrators this spring announced a plan to eliminate all elementary-school music and art classes. That and other proposed cuts would save about $3 million, district officials say.
The district began its budget planning this year with a $13 million deficit, Superintendent Louis DeVlieger said in an interview, and "I don't know who is going to come riding over the hill to save us."
Administrators maintain that the middle- and high school arts programs remain untouched, so the tradition of excellence will continue.
But many view the elementary-school teachers as an indispensable link in the arts' chain of success. For example, music instructors teach third graders the recorder, helping them learn musical notation that becomes the foundation for later choral and instrumental participation.
In response to the proposed cuts, thousands of district residents turned out at school board meetings in recent weeks and started mobilizing to take their case to Harrisburg, seeking state funding to roll back the changes. Those efforts, which including launching a protest website, www.saveudarts.org, are expected to intensify in coming weeks.
Parents are distraught.
"There is incredible talent that comes out of this district," said Carolyn Caron, one of the protest leaders, and the mother of a sixth grader at Drexel Hill Middle School who plays the violin and clarinet. "The arts really solidify the district; it's what makes us great. It's also what keeps a lot of families in the schools here."
Others echo that view, including Summer Stage's Dietzler.
"I think for many people, it's their identity," he said in a recent interview. "This is our point of pride; this is what we've bragged about and boasted about — we're the leaders here; we can't let this die."
Then there's Tina Fey, Upper Darby High Class of '88.
Summer Stage, Fey said in an interview, was "so fun that you didn't realize you were learning teamwork and commitment and problem-solving and organization and public speaking at the same time."
It "was a home to us. We found lifelong friendships. It was a place where you could succeed and it kept us off the streets."
She added: "It makes me upset that the only answer is to take arts away from these kids. … I got a public school education and am very proud of it. The kids growing up now deserve the same things I got. … That should be their right."
For current chorus member Angelica Rivera, a senior, "The arts is my life." Cutting elementary music, she said, would be "like losing your voice." The Summer Stage program "is beyond amazing," she said. "You are with people who love doing the same thing you do. … It's indescribable."
Barbara Kurmlavage, also a senior, transferred from Catholic school because of Upper Darby High's choral program.
"It has totally changed me," she said. "Everyone here is friends. We're a family. The arts has been a home to me. I love it."
When parents talk about elementary-school teachers building the foundation of Upper Darby High's arts success, they mean people such as Martin Hyde, the music teacher at Garrettford Elementary School in Drexel Hill.
Hyde does much more than simply instill basics. His third graders also learn to play the baritone ukulele; if they learn two chords, Hyde said, "they can play hundreds of songs."
Hyde also writes songs on school themes that the children perform.
The effort pays off. Garrettford's choral, band, string, and orchestra ensembles total about 215 participants, with many children at the 575-student school joining several groups.
"Singing is my whole life; it's my favorite thing to do," said fifth grader Sasha Taylor, one of Hyde's students. "Music inspires us."
Art teachers make similar contributions, said district art supervisor Ellen Flocco, doing everything from helping students design scenery for school plays to finding hidden talent in struggling students. The high school has a rich array of offerings for both dabblers and serious artists. Awards and scholarships often follow.
Senior Jude Marks, who won a national Congressional Art contest "Best in Show" prize last year, echoed that view. In a video interview with a student reporter, he said that his love and mastery of art stemmed from his work with an elementary-school teacher and that his high school courses pushed him to new levels of achievement.
Upper Darby's elementary- and middle-school music program generates high levels of participation at the high school. About 430 students are in the choral program at the 3,700-student school; about 200 are in band and orchestra.
Choral director and district music supervisor Barbara Benglian, a former state teacher of the year, is legendary both for her high expectations and for fostering a nurturing atmosphere. She relishes learning about her students' lives as much as their musical abilities. "I always tell the kids 'I need to know your story,' " she said in an interview. "We call ourselves a family … where they feel accepted and cared-for."
Music is so woven into Upper Darby's fabric that an annual 5K run and music marathon in memory of elementary music teacher Brad Schoener became a major event in recent years. Schoener won a national award for his dedication to his mainly low-income students before dying of cancer in 2009, at age 46. The daylong event hosted more than 1,000 performers and thousands more spectators last weekend, raising $28,000 to purchase instruments and give lessons to needy students. "It shows people's commitment to the arts," said his widow, Jennifer Schoener, herself a school band director in Lancaster County.
Schoener said her husband "knew Upper Darby had something special. … The teachers sometimes don't have the tools that other districts have, but they never let that stop them. And the parents are passionate. They know what music does for their children and they want to keep it."
She added: "This is heartbreaking. It's so unlike the Upper Darby I have come to know. I'm still hoping something good will happen, and the sense of community that has always been there can be restored. I hope it's not too late."