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By Sandy Stenoff

“On Friday night, I learned that, with just 14 school days remaining in the year, and with the Spring Concert THIS Tuesday, our highly respected Orchestra Teacher, Kevin Strang was advised by the principal at Tuskawilla Middle School, that she would not renew his contract for the 2016-2017 school year. To add insult to injury, Friday was the last day of National Teacher Appreciation Week. It bites…

My daughter is a student in Mr. Strang’s Orchestra class and was very much looking forward to studying both Violin and Piano with him next year. As I write this, we do not know if we will have an Orchestra Director on Tuesday evening.

When the previous Orchestra Director moved away suddenly before Winter break, and Mr. Strang was hired, my daughter, who adored her teacher, naturally resisted warming up to the new teacher.  I, on the other hand, knew of Mr. Strang’s stellar reputation for excellence in Orange County and was familiar with what he had achieved at Blankner Elementary and Boone High School. I could not have been more pleased that Seminole County Public Schools had won an educator of Mr. Strang’s caliber over to this district. It took all of a week for her to warm up to Mr. Strang, whose approach was, in her own words, “more demanding, serious and professional.”

She recently said to me,

“I missed Mr. Welch in the beginning, but I’m a much better violinist now because of Mr. Strang.”

At eleven years old, she takes her education very seriously. Just since January, he has been able to inculcate in her, the philosophy and discipline behind the premise that,

“if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right.”

In an entire lifetime, many adults never learn that from anyone. How do you evaluate that?

At the recent Florida Orchestra Association (FOA) Music Performance Assessment, under Mr. Strang’s direction, the Tuskawilla Advanced Orchestra was rated Superior on stage and in Sightreading – the very first time this orchestra and any of the students had attended.

“The Florida Orchestra Association is an association of orchestra teachers that began giving assessment to kids in the 50’s. We select our most successful directors to be judges, who must then go through a certification process, which must be successfully completed. The judges are then assigned by the FOA State Executive Board to judge in each district. The judges are from out of town and may not be affiliated with the district they judge in any way. The judges follow a strict rubric and rate each orchestra in several categories, such as blend, balance, pitch, articulation, dynamics, orchestral technique. The rating comes from the average of each category. The students play 3 pieces on stage for three judges, then go to sight reading where the judge passes out a piece of music they have never seen and students are given five minutes to study and talk about it. It can’t be played during the 5 minutes. The first time the students play it is for the judge who rates the students’ ability to read music.”

Education could learn a lot from music teachers.

Dedicated music teachers must grow weary of districts’ public celebration of their achievements and the accolades brought to the schools, borne of their HARD work and sacrifice on behalf of our children, while they are disrespected and discarded by the system they serve.

The NAMM Foundation annually names the best school districts in the nation for music education.  Of the 388 school districts named in the 2015 BEST COMMUNITIES FOR MUSIC EDUCATION DISTRICTS, not a single district in Florida was named. Not ONE.

The music programs at Eastbrook Elementary, Tuskawilla Middle and Lake Howell High School are promoted throughout the district as important growing programs. From a public relations perspective, the music programs in Seminole are a perfect complement to the district’s standing as “number one STEM district in Florida.”  The positive effects of music  on learning are well-known and documented.  Research has proven that music education enhances Math and Science achievement. At a time when quality music programs are a rarity in public schools, parents MOVE to this school zone and INVEST in costly musical instruments because of the promise of continuity in the music program here and should be incensed that this decision was conveyed to such a respected and highly skilled teacher in this manner and at this time.

Teachers are important to the success of any school. Highly effective teachers, even more so. Highly effective teachers, who are qualified to be the Orchestra Directors at multiple schools – well, I’m sure I needn’t go on. Are highly effective Orchestra Directors really that easy to find? Is the teacher shortage that we continue to hear about, not dire enough that the district can afford to get rid of a teacher, such as Mr. Strang?

At a time when the entire nation is struggling to keep teachers, how can we be getting rid of one of our best?

In spite of the critical teacher shortage in Florida and across the nation, experienced, dedicated teachers are being told they are being “non-renewed” this week. Perhaps they are too costly because of their experience, or perhaps it is because they are vocal critics of their districts or administration. It doesn’t really matter. There needn’t be cause.  Principals have the authority to deny renewal if a teacher wears the wrong color shoes.  It is reaching a crisis point when seen in total.

In years past, after 3 years of successful teaching, a teacher was automatically rehired each year. (Before you go there — there were always proper channels to fire an unfit teacher.) That ended with Senate Bill 736. Now, teachers hired after 2012 are on 10 month contracts forever, unless the local union negotiates language to protect teachers. A senior teacher who transfers to another district loses their job protection and works on 10 month contracts… And there isn’t a thing that can be done, because it may be unethical, but it is legal.  Continuing contracts were lost when SB 736 was voted in.

Given this treatment of Kevin Strang, can parents really wonder why teachers are not more vocal? Are parents even aware of the implications of this law for the stability of their children’s education?

Kevin Strang selflessly gave up the protection (and remuneration) of a fully tenured position in Orange County for the promise of being able to help grow a program upon which Seminole County Public Schools could hang its hat. And he was doing just that. He has always maintained his rating of “highly effective,” the highest possible rating, and his time in SCPS was no different. He is an asset to this school district. Tuskawilla Orchestra students grew under his direction, had tremendous musical “learning gains” and brought acclaim and recognition to the school and the district, in just four short months. I can think of no one more qualified to do what he has done in the few months he has been here; and certainly none more willing.

It is inconceivable to me that SCPS would do away with Orchestra and so a reasonable question would be whether someone has already been recruited to take his place as Orchestra Director. Anything less would be irresponsible for such a challenging position to fill appropriately.

Mr. Strang was a gift to SCPS. It is a shameful loss that nothing was done to retain his expertise in Seminole County Public Schools. Kevin Strang is much more than just “some music teacher.” Not only is he a first rate string teacher and Orcestra Director, he is a strong advocate for students and his fellow teachers (see links below).  This is a significant loss, not only to the children, but to the teaching profession and to public education.

When I broke the news to my daughter yesterday, she was sad, disappointed, and angry. I hope that more Seminole County parents and students will become angry as well.
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