Six Questions for Local School Board Members

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Whether a superintendent, principal or school board member, to say that you operate in a challenging educational environment is an understatement. In an increasingly complex world, expectations for providing students an education worthy of the 21st Century are rising. As is public skepticism regarding the effectiveness of schools in delivering that education. As if those challenges are not enough, the resources available to achieve that goal are declining.

In such an environment, education leaders will increasingly be challenged to examine how to invest resources in the most effective and efficient way. While many policy and funding priorities are driven by federal and state mandates, there is an area where local officials have ample authority to establish program and funding priorities: extracurricular activities.

Some maintain that decisions around sports and the arts are not nearly as important as those relating to core subjects or standardized testing issues. However, the priorities demonstrated through extracurricular spending have an outsized community influence. While a relatively small percentage of the overall school budget, they are highly visible activities that the community experiences directly through games and events. The fact is, what education leaders choose to emphasize and invest in speaks volumes as what they choose to identify as “important” greatly influences school and community values and culture. It is a complex relationship with no easy answers, particularly as it relates to the elephant in the room: tackle football.

Challenging the role of tackle football in our schools is the “third rail” of education reform. Regardless, we expect our education leaders to take on the tough challenges. That is what leadership is about. The days are over where boards continue to establish educational policy and funding priorities simply because we have always done it a certain way. The stakes are too high and the world is changing too rapidly.

My purpose is not to attack or destroy tackle football, but rather to encourage education leaders to consider its role in our schools in our rapidly changing world. It is a world that is galaxies removed from industrial America of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when football was formally incorporated into the fabric of our educational institutions. We live in an information-based, interconnected global economy and world community, where many of the jobs our students will have in the future do not even exist yet. It is a world economy where the most important currency of the future will be creativity.

But not only is the world around us changing rapidly, the world of tackle football is facing seismic shifts, much of it driven by its’ impact on brain health. Evidence of tackle football’s link to brain trauma continues to grow. This mounting evidence begs the question. What is the fundamental role of our educational institutions: to build and strengthen brains or to scramble them? 

There is also the culture of tackle football. Many schools invest a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources in tackle football. As a result, its influence on the academic values and educational culture of the school is enormous. But it is a violent, often sexist, win-at-all-cost culture with strong undercurrents of anti-intellectualism.  The question is whether the culture of football is compatible with the academic culture and values of an educational institution.

As mentioned, board members and education and community leaders are operating in an exceedingly challenging environment. As a result, it is critical that they engage in open, honest, data driven analysis of whether tackle football is an activity that continues to deserve the enormous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources that have traditionally been heaped upon it. In short, the question is whether tackle football remains a wise and effective educational investment.

To that end, following are six fundamental questions that boards should discuss,  research and act upon as it relates to this challenge.

1 . Tackle football was incorporated into the educational system in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a tool to provide students the skills to succeed in the industrial economy of that time.  Should the fact that our industrial economy has given way to a creative, information based, world economy and community that requires a different set of workplace skills, be considered in funding decisions related to football?

2 .  Have the potential human costs to students’ health associated with football participation become too great for an educational institution to assume? 

3 . One of the most fundamental responsibilities of our school system is not only to instill in young people a love of lifelong learning, but also the tools to allow them to continue to learn over their lifetimes. An overwhelming majority of football players will never play the game after high school. Are there better extracurricular activities, for example music, which can be practiced for a lifetime, in which to invest to achieve this purpose?

4 . From a public health perspective, should interscholastic sports programs serve a relatively small portion of the student body largely for public entertainment (Current US Model)?  Or, should school sports and wellness programs be structured  to provide broad based activities that can be practiced by all students for a lifetime (European Model)?    

5 . How do you know what your primary institutional constituents’ opinions are regarding the fit of tackle football in your school and community? Or, do you simply assume you know how supportive (or not) your community is of football and its costs? Perhaps some surveying of the community could provide valuable input?

6. Why not Flag Football?  See: https://www.johngerdy.com/blog-overview/why-not-flag-football

At the end of the day, the primary responsibility of board members and education leaders is to evaluate and prioritize school and academic priorities and programming. While the emotions around this issue will be strong and the dialogue generated by the discussion of these questions will be heated, that fact is, the world is changing too rapidly to continue to sponsor activities that no longer yield an adequate return on educational dollars invested in them. 

Tiny Tim: An American Musical Visionary 

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If you are over 50, you surely remember him. How could you not? Certainly you remember his signature song: “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”.

Yes, we’re talking about Tiny Tim, that tall, long, stringy haired, goofy looking dude playing the ukulele and singing in that quivering, falsetto voice.  He was silly, campy and probably did more for ensuring that the ukulele would become one of the more derided instruments of the past half-century. 

But what goes ‘round, comes ‘round because the ukulele is back! And it’s hot! Ukulele music festivals are popping up all over the country.  Even Eddie Vedder recorded an entire album of ukulele songs and won a Grammy for it. Over 1.7 million ukes were sold in 2017, up from 500,000 in 2009.  

 Tiny Tim, as it turns out, was an American musical visionary.

The ukulele originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off a boat and started singing and strumming his Branguinha. Legend has it that the Hawaiians were so impressed with his playing that they called the instrument “ukulele” which translates to “jumping flea.” The instrument quickly captured the imagination of the islands to where the reigning monarch Kalakaua learned how to play it. By the 1920’s Sears Roebuck catalogues offered ukes for a couple of dollars. Big name performers such as Bing Crosby, Betty Grable and Elvis Pressley incorporated the uke into their acts. 

But by the 1950’s rock-n-roll was sweeping the country and the tinny, toy-like uke was swamped by kids who fell in love with the electric guitar. 

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Tiny Tim, however, kept playing it, appearing on television shows like Ed Sullivan. But the image of Tiny Tim and the toy-like ukulele was no match for the electric guitar driven act like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry.  

Beginning in the 1980’s some rock stars such as Paul McCartney began to play it. McCartney was influenced by George Harrison who was a devotee of the instrument. And slowly, the ukulele began to make a comeback, despite the fact the most common image of the instrument was still associated with Tiny Tim.  For a wonderful account of the uke’s history and evolution, (and the main source of the research for this paper), check out “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele” by Marion Jacobson in January 24, 2015 edition of The Atlantic

Clearly, there is a major ukulele uprising taking place in the US, not only as evidenced by the exploding sales numbers, but I have been exposed to the rise (again) of the uke through my work with Music For Everyone. Other than my memories of Tiny Tim, I had no idea of the resurgence of the uke until a few years ago when we began receiving requests from schools to provide them with the instruments to start school based uke programs. MFE, through its annual instrument grant program, has been awarding grants to schools in Lancaster County, PA since 2007. 

Over the first six years of the grant program, we did not receive one request from a school to provide them with a batch of ukes. But in 2012 we began to notice the beginning of a trend, where we would receive at least two and sometimes three requests from schools to provide them with 20 – 25 ukuleles to start a program. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical but in conversations with teachers it became quite clear that the ukulele may very well be the introductory instrument of the future for young children. The more I found out about it and began to experiment with one myself, it became very apparent. 

First, it is small for small hands. Kids have trouble with larger instruments like a full sized guitar, saxophone or viola. Many instruments are simply too big and bulky for young children. Second is that you can begin playing songs on a uke almost immediately as there are only four strings and you can form and play many chords by playing (fingering) only one string.  The faster you can get children to feel that they are producing real music not only by themselves, but to be able to play music with other players, the better. The more excited they will get about playing music.  The uke is excellent for achieve that goal. 

Don’t believe me? Think back to those recorders or the screeching sounds that a beginner saxophonist or violinist produce when learning the instrument. Immediate, positive gratification and connection to the instrument, the music and fellow players is key in sparking a child’s interest in continuing to play music. This is why teachers love them as an introductory instrument. 

And they are inexpensive. While you can spend over $500 for a high-end model a decent uke for beginners costs around $100. Other than a choral group or a percussion ensemble, the cost of providing 20 – 25 instruments to start a full string program or brass ensemble is prohibitive, particularly in these days of tightening budgets for music and art programs. 

And not only are we receiving requests from schools for ukes, we are also beginning to receive them from community recreation programs and senior centers to start groups for senior. To get a sense of their potential impact on seniors, check out this recently released Music For Everyone video: 

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The segment on our Ukulele Uprising begins at the 1.50 mark. 

Finally, there is the sheer fun of it as Jake Shimabukuro explains, “There’s something about the ukulele that just makes you smile. It makes you let your guard down. It brings out the child in all of us.” 

And in these times, we can all benefit from embracing our inner child. 

So, long live the uke!  The instrument of the future. And, as we all tip toe through the tulips, we should pay our respects to Tiny Tim, an American Musical Visionary. 

Building Walls vs. Building Bridges: Music’s Role

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Despite the current political climate where efforts to build walls, ban travel and separate different ethnic groups is increasing, an argument can be made that over time, the forces of globalization are simply too strong and, ultimately, will prevail.

Whether it relates to the economy, the environment, religion or culture, the fact is, the world community is becoming increasingly interrelated and interdependent. Travel is faster, safer, more affordable and more accessible to the masses. A distance that once took a day to traverse is now only hours away. You can be in New York today and Tokyo the next.

Global communication is now instantaneous and accessible to almost everyone on the planet. From Memphis to Mumbai, Sheboygen to Shanghai, all it takes to access the global communications network is a modem and electricity. From the challenges associated with the spread of disease to the spread of terrorist ideology to the fact that our children are now competing against the children of India, China and Russia for the world’s best jobs. International and cultural boundaries are diminishing.

The result is that the U.S. is no longer a virtual island, protected by two major oceans. We can no longer isolate ourselves from the problems, issues and opportunities of the rest of the world.  We are part of a global economic and geopolitical system.  In so many ways, we are becoming one world.

In short, there is a big world out there and rather than trying to build walls we must learn to effectively deal with that reality.

This begs the question. What must our educational institutions do to effectively educate and prepare our children to succeed in this changing global reality? Increasingly, our schools are being asked to instill in our children not only an awareness and appreciation for these changing global circumstances, but also to prepare them to successfully navigate the challenges presented by an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural global community. In other words, proficiency in reading, writing and math is no longer enough. Today, a quality education must include an understanding of, appreciation for, and the ability to function in a multi-ethnic, multi-national, interrelated world.

If we expect our children and our nation to thrive in the 21st Century, our educational policies and programs must take into account these changing challenges and expectations, including priorities and policies relating to the role that music can play in the school curricula.

Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural understanding.   That is why, for example, there is a long and strong history of the U.S. State Department using music as a vehicle to promote cultural understanding. The number of cultural exchange music programs involving countries from all over the globe are too many to mention. And, there is a long history of radio networks such as Voice of America broadcasting American jazz, blues and rock-n-roll to a worldwide audience.

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I was recently reminded of music’s potential in this regard by a fellow musician recounting a visit to Italy. He described two very unexpected highlights. As he and his family entered an open plaza in Rome, they heard, flowing out of beautiful cathedral, the sound of a choral group in full-throated Latin. Upon further inquiry, they were surprised to discover the group consisted of high school students from all over the United States. They were rehearsing for a performance, one of several they were scheduled to give throughout Europe. 

The second occurred at a café in Venice, where they noticed a play bill advertising an upcoming appearance by a choral group. Upon closer examination, they saw that the group was a high school chorus from a small town in rural Indiana. Imagine being a high school kid from a country town in middle-America singing in Florence, Italy. How cool is that!

Music is the universal language with an appeal that transcends language, cultural or religious boundaries. The notes played by a musician fall on the ears the same way whether you are American, Muslim, Jewish, African or Mexican. Engaging in music activities with people of another culture or country can increase cultural understanding and tolerance.  It is the ability to build bridges to other cultures and societies that makes music such a valuable educational and cultural tool.  

In an increasingly integrated global economy and diverse world community, providing our children access to music education opportunities is critical. Rather than building walls, school and community leaders should be working to leverage the power of music as a universal language to break down barriers and build community. In today’s world, harnessing music’s power in this regard is more important than ever.

Nonprofit Leadership Tips from the Basketball Court

This essay appeared in the September 22, 2018 edition of Blue Avocado.

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As a former all-American and professional basketball player turned nonprofit leader, I see tons of similarities between life on the court and as an executive director of a small nonprofit. Everything I learned playing the game comes in surprisingly handy, especially the importance of both defining and continuously revisiting roles and responsibilities, trusting teammates, and striving to break records.

Are Roles and Responsibilities Clear?

On the basketball court, coaches spend an enormous amount of time outlining players’ roles in an effort to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses, both of which are key to winning. For example, I was a good scorer, while other teammates were incredible defenders.

Defining the roles and responsibilities of your staff, volunteers, interns, and board members is perhaps the central challenge of nonprofit leadership. Articulating and defining roles is critical because nonprofits rely so heavily on volunteers.

This is particularly important when it comes to identifying and recruiting board members. Just like a basketball team, an effective board must be well balanced with members who possess a varied assortment of talents and expertise. Simply being passionate about the mission doesn’t qualify someone for board service, although of course it’s an important pre-requisite. Most importantly, you need to ensure clarity around the specific skills and contacts candidates offer, and how these overlap with current or future needs. Make sure to clearly articulate new member’s responsibilities and how they relate to the needs identified.

For smaller or start up organizations with minimal or no staff, developing a working board where members understand their specific roles and how those align with the organization’s needs is essential.

For example, in 2009 my music-focused nonprofit implemented Keys for the City, a program that placed painted pianos throughout the streets of Lancaster. We needed a well-connected visual artist to coordinate the design and painting aspects of the program. So we recruited one and clearly outlined her responsibilities around identifying and securing artists. Almost ten years later we can proudly claim Lancaster PA as the “Street Piano Capital of the World.”

Is Your Team Evolving?

On the basketball court, team chemistry and individual roles evolved over the course of the season due to injuries and constant adjustments in style of play. Nonprofits, like any team, must adapt as new opportunities, challenges, and issues arise. A lynchpin to ensuring this is constantly revisiting roles and responsibilities.

For example, we are in the process of finding a new board member to serve as our treasurer. The board member currently in that role conceived a program to catalogue and repair every single instrument at every public school in the county. It’s a big, detailed, expensive, and operationally challenging program, but also a huge opportunity for us. We’ve been communicating throughout regarding him eventually relinquishing his duties as treasurer to tap his skills to build and execute what will become a major program, and we’re excited to finally be ready to make that transition.

Trust Your Teammates

Once roles and responsibilities are established—or re-established over time—the real challenge begins: trusting your team to carry them out.

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In my former basketball life, my most important role was scoring points. But to do that, I had to trust my teammates to help me get open and deliver the ball to me at the right time and place.

Trusting teammates to do their job is especially important if you lead a small nonprofit. In the case of my nonprofit, we started with a volunteer staff of one—me. Since 2006, we’ve grown to a point where we invested over $1.6 million in grants, scholarships, and general support for school and community music programs. With no full-time paid staff until 2016, we have been successful because we have a working board and volunteers who understand and execute their roles and responsibilities.

In short, whether on the basketball court or in a small nonprofit, all of that strategic recruitment and role defining is of little use if those people are not allowed to do the jobs for which they’re recruited. Without trust, the ability to grow your organization and increase community impact will be severely limited.

Or, in the words of the aforementioned treasurer turned instrument repair guru, “You identify ‘doers,’ tell them what to do, and let them do it.”

Are You Striving to Break Records?

At Davidson College, I held the school career scoring record for 30 years, until Steph Curry came along. Records are wonderful, but they’re made to be broken, whether in sports or in your nonprofit.

As a founder, I’m still working on letting our “doers do their thing.”  But we’re making progress as evidenced in our evolution and growing impact. One of our signature initiatives is an annual instrument grant program. This year, we awarded over $112,000 to 51 different schools and community arts groups to purchase instruments, breaking our previous 2017 record. That’s the kind of record we’d love to keep breaking!

When you set a new record, take the time to celebrate it, but soon after, set a new target that exceeds your old record, and put a plan in place to reach it. Where are you motivating your staff to exceed their previous successes?

Some have said, “If you play life as a game, you’ll always win.” While the work of nonprofits is no game, there are many lessons we can learn from them. In my personal experience playing basketball, the most relevant and applicable lessons I learned on the court and now think about daily in my new career as an executive director center around defining and continuously revisiting roles and responsibilities, trusting teammates, and striving to break records. Now that I’ve shared my playbook, I hope you find these helpful, too!

Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

My father was a successful high school football coach. He was an old school, three yards and a cloud of dust sort of coach. Nothing bothered him more than watching his offense fumble the football. Offenders of what he considered the ultimate football sin were made to carry a football around school all day, every day until the next game. Conversely, as a defensive minded coach, nothing delighted him more than when his defensive unit caused and recovered a fumble.

It's happened... again. Why not flag football?

Why not flag football?

It’s happened….again.

A Georgia high school football player who came out of a game with an injury and then lost consciousness on the sideline has died, officials said. Dylan Thomas, a 16-year-old junior linebacker for the Pike County Pirates, came out of a game in the third quarter Friday night with what his coach Brad Webber said was a leg injury. He was pronounced dead Sunday night from a head injury.

How many more times does this scenario have to play out before parents, school officials, the sports media, fans and anyone else who continues to resist the need to reconsider and re-imagine tackle football at the youth, junior high and high school levels to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves a question:

Why not flag football?

We say that the game is “about the kids” and that it’s about teaching valuable life lessons, developing healthy bodies and competitive instincts, building community and providing entertainment. But if that were the case, rather than refusing to consider a switch from tackle to flag football, we’d embrace the change. To do otherwise is to enable the continuation of an activity in which our children have a reasonable chance of sustaining life long brain damage.

Why would we not embrace such an activity when a significantly safer and less expensive alternative exists?

The fact is, virtually every benefit that can be derived from tackle football can still be taught and absorbed through participation in flag football. Players will still be on teams to learn sacrifice, personal responsibility and teamwork. They’d still be actively engaged in a physical activity. They’d still compete for starting positions and against other teams. And the game would continue to be wonderfully entertaining, but in a different, less brutal (and expensive) way.

So why not flag football?