Because he is “very, very big into choir,” Reed Gordon, a senior at Napa High School, has traveled the world.
In his four years singing with the school’s renowned vocal music program, he’s been to Hawaii, Florida and France on tours that combined sightseeing and performance, a tradition that music programs in the Napa Valley Unified School District have held for years.
The trips “were amazing,” Gordon said. “Freshman year, I went to Hawaii for a week. That was about $1,800, give or take a few hundred.” Sophomore year — Florida — cost around $1,400 for five days. His France trip junior year totaled $2,800.
If you throw in the smaller costs of spring trips to competitions in Southern California and chamber choir’s $400 rehearsal weekends before the holiday season, his four years of choir expenses add up to more than $7,000 for about a month’s worth of travel.
“Personally, my parents have picked up a lot of the tab,” he said.
Gordon could have spent more. As a senior this year, he decided the $2,095 choir trip to New York was too expensive for his family. The teachers offered to help him fundraise, he said, but he didn’t want to do that either.
So for a day this past December, when 130 of his choirmates left for New York, Gordon went to fifth period alone. He felt a few pangs of regret as class pictures started to go up on Facebook, but overall, he didn’t mind. It was his choice not to go, he said. And besides, he said he’s pretty thick-skinned.
But what about kids who aren’t as thick-skinned?, he wonders. Or as economically advantaged as Gordon readily says he is?
Every year, it seems, at least one of the public high schools’ music programs jets off to an exotic locale. In the 2009-2010 school year, the Vintage High School band traveled to London; Napa’s choir went to France. This year, Vintage’s choir would have taken a spring break trip to Tokyo but for the natural disaster there. Today, Napa band students are returning home from a cruise in the Bahamas.
Gordon expresses concern about the impact of high-cost school trips on students whose families cannot afford far-flung travel.
“Freshman year, we had a lot more depth and breadth in terms of income and race,” he said. As the choir classes got more selective, requiring more time of students — and more money — “it’s like, uh, that’s the rich white kid club.”
Last September, the Napa Valley Unified School District’s board of trustees paused to consider the cost of extracurricular travel. The board was determining whether to approve proposed high school field trips reported to run $3,500, $2,095, and $1,800 per student.
What about the low-income students, “the ones on free and reduced lunch? How do they handle the cost at such an early start of the year?” trustee Francis Ortiz-Chavez wanted to know.
She had been able to send her own kids to Europe on a school trip, but certainly some families can’t handle the costs, she said.
Nick Curtis, the district’s auditorium manager and the parent of a choir student, joined the board discussion.
“They give students and families the opportunity to raise funds during various fundraising events and they also do their utmost to assist students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged,” Curtis said. “They don’t have very many of those students in chamber choir,” he conceded.
“Maybe that’s why,” Ortiz-Chavez said.
It’s not only low-income families who might find such costs daunting, trustee Thomas Kensok said. “We’ve got some numbers here that are not very easy for the middle class either,” he said.
Melia Manter, the student representative to the board, agreed. “You are not the first person to bring this up,” she said.
Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said Ortiz-Chavez had raised a cutting issue. “We are excluding students by the nature of the cost,” he said. “We say that our second goal is the achievement gap, and as uncomfortable as it may sound, there is an opportunity gap that exists with the choir. So we will look into it.”
“They do provide a substantial amount of opportunities that exist throughout the year,” said Curtis, citing bingo evenings, yard sales, parking lots sales and sponsorships. “So maybe it’s the unmotivated student, whether they can afford to or not, that doesn’t take those opportunities,” he said.
Ortiz-Chavez offered a broader explanation. “Or it’s the parent that is working two or three jobs to pay rent that can’t dedicate the time to the fundraising piece that is not going to allow those children to participate?”
In short, what if students from stressed families weren’t going into these programs at all?
“You are preaching to the choir,” Curtis said.
Since domestic and foreign travel has been a long-standing tradition at Napa and Vintage high schools, why would these questions arise now?
Part of what put field trips on the board’s radar was a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union against the state, which alleged that public schools have been illegally charging students for course materials that should be free.
Mark Morrison, the school district’s director of secondary education, said the suit has prompted a district review of school programs and their fee structures — from the price of a gym uniform to an overseas trip.
Since that board meeting, Morrison said he has discussed the costs of travel with some of the high schools’ music instructors and determined that there are enough fundraising opportunities for band and choir students to be able to go on a trip if they work at it.
Besides, he said, “You can charge for field trips. That has been settled.”
But there are broader problems with how performing arts programs throughout the district raise money. Next year, for instance, music classes won’t be able to require lab fees to cover the cost of sheet music and uniforms.
This will pose a particular funding challenge for the performing arts, which already rely heavily on public support to sustain their programs.
This year, the district voted to cut money for elementary music programs, prompting the Napa Valley Education Foundation to step in to save the program.
As the state cuts school budgets year after year, schools have increasingly looked to families to shoulder the cost of their enrichment activities.
More than a third of California schools ask families to cover their arts and music programs, according to UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, which just released its California Educational Opportunity report. Forty-three percent of California schools ask the same for field trips.
The move from public to private comes with its risks. “As high schools shift costs to families, inequality between schools often grows,” the report said. “Requiring families to pay for services also exacerbates inequality within schools.”
Ideally, said trustee Joe Schunk, “schools are the great leveler, the great melting pot, that bring the citizens together.”
Whether the district achieves that aim is a conversation that arises in many forms — not just the question of school trips. School officials wonder whether economic concerns are preventing the ethnic composition of some programs from mirroring the demographics of the overall student body.
“We asked — but may not have come to a conclusion — as to whether it was economics, interest, or just what produced a very different distribution than was typical of our student body,” trustee Schunk said.
Anticipating another year of deep budget cuts, in which the district will ask for more private fundraising, Morrison said it will struggle to strike a balance: “maintaining enrichment activities with the reality that every child on our campus has to have the opportunity to participate.”
But when it comes to ensuring those opportunities for all, what, exactly, is the alternative? “The other option is to do nothing and only perform locally and not give kids the opportunity,” said Elena Toscano, assistant superintendent for instructional services. “If you’re going to have a nationally recognized, award-winning musical, athletic or dance program, you have to participate in things that are outside of Napa.”
Morrison hopes to address travel costs partly by having teachers submit their plans earlier, so that the board can evaluate a trip’s learning value and expenses before groups sign contracts with travel agents or buy tickets.
“Whatever barriers are keeping kids from wanting to participate, we need to work on that,” Sweeney said. “We are proud of our performing arts and athletic programs, we just need to find ways that we do provide opportunities for all students … if cost is a factor, we need to figure out opportunities for them.”
Travis Rogers, Napa High’s choir director, defends his program as being available to all who would like to sing and travel.
“Far from it being a cost thing,” Rogers said his program has had to limit enrollment on some trips because “the tour buses were full.”
In his nearly 30 years as a choir teacher, Rogers said he’s never had an instance in which a student was left behind who wanted to go. “It’s like any family financial situation. They’re going to decide what they spend their money on,” he said.
As for the socioeconomic description that Gordon cast of the choir, Rogers said that the same phenomenon could be seen among many clubs and activities at the high school. “It’s been a reality for years,” he said.
Mike Riendeau, who is in his second year as director of Napa High’s instrumental music program, spent last week with his band on a Caribbean cruise.
In addition to playing for other passengers, the 100 students attending the weeklong trip were to play for a professional band leader and professors at the University of Central Florida, who would critique their performance. The learning component for the trip is obvious, he said.
Besides that, “the memories, they’re kind of magical,” said Riendeau, who believes that the Caribbean cruise will be the farthest some of his students will ever get from Napa. “It will probably be one of the highlights of their time in band. They deserve this.”
Spencer Martin, a Napa High junior who plays guitar, said he managed to raise money for the $1,800 cruise mostly by working at Saturday bingo evenings with his parents. “It feels kind of exhilarating, in a way, that I was able to pay for something myself and be responsible,” he said.
The initial cost of the Caribbean getaway was a little intimidating, said tubist Kim Stout, but the promise of a blow-out trip was part of what attracted her to band. “When you start playing at a young age, you know that when you get older you’ll have amazing opportunities like this. It’s part of the reason you’re in band.”
There’s no doubt that Riendeau and many of his students have worked hard for this trip — to prepare musically, as well as financially. Of the board’s September discussion, he said, “I’m not really sure that they realized how many fundraisers we’ve dreamed up this year.”
The Napa High choir program and Vintage music programs dream up just as many.
But it can prove difficult for a teacher to always know who’s in need of those opportunities, said Vintage band director William Gantt. “The kid that can’t go on tour will walk in with a $300 iPhone,” he said. “It’s kind of camouflaged in a way.”
Some do tell him privately, “‘Here’s my situation at home, but I really want to go on this trip,’” Gantt said. For others, he has to keep an eye out. “I’ll bring them into my office and have a little chat.”
Faced with a tough economic climate, Gantt said he’s considered scaling back the number of big tours for his class. Most of the fundraising events the band throws “are just to keep the music program happening,” he said. “We’re in constant fundraising mode. There’s never a time when we don’t think about these events.”
So when he tells parents he might arrange high-cost tours less frequently in the coming years, many “seem relieved and kind of at ease,” he said. “We’re working so hard, we don’t want to burn parents or kids out.”
Or, as Vintage choir director Mark Teeters put it, “Our department is about singing and our trips are just a byproduct of what we do every day.”
Gantt would not, however, want to do away with the higher-cost trips entirely. Far-flung trips, like the band’s stint in London last year, have helped build the group’s reputation. They’re also a source of recruitment. “Several kids continued in the music program this year because they knew they were going to London.”
This has been a cause of minor frustration for Melia Manter, the student representative at school board meetings.
As the editor of Napa High’s newspaper, she’s seen what a powerful draw the prospect of tours has been for many of the school’s most motivated and talented students. For Manter, it’s been hard to attract those students to her club, which fundraised and scrimped to send six students to a journalism competition in Portland last year.
“What it looks like on paper is that there’s enough fundraising for everyone,” she said of students who travel with band and choir. “But it’s hard to get numbers (for people who never sign up).”
And it’s hard to know who, even within these clubs, is not speaking up. “I think the problems are the kids who wouldn’t admit it,” Manter said. And why would they? “The kids who need the money the most could be the ones who are the most shy about it.”
Reed Gordon made a similar point: “It’s embarrassing. You’re expecting low-income students in this sea of middle- to high-income students to say, ‘I don’t think we should spend all this money because I’m poor’?”
Still, Manter said, the weeks leading up to these trips and immediately afterward are exciting for the whole school. “It’s really cool when people come back and they’re more cultured. You get to hear about the adventures, the snafus.”
Manter sees an irony that some school groups go on exotic trips at a time of fiscal austerity for public schools.
“We’re spending so much money on these trips and then we’re cutting back teachers,” she said. “It’s weird to hear kids complaining, ‘Where’s all the paper?’ and then go on these trips.”
Sitting next to Manter in a coffee shop the Wednesday morning before spring break, with rain failing outside, Chelsea Bergin recalled another rainy day: the time she stood outside with the Napa High choir on Omaha beach in Normandy, France, “shivering and sobbing and completely raw and emotional.”
With parents and chaperones looking on, they sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” to commemorate the war dead and an Irish ballad they often perform, which starts with the words, “May the road rise to meet you.”
That’s when Bergin said she knew she wanted to travel more. “Wow, I need to see more of this, and feel more of this,” she said.
“When I’m thinking back to New York or France,” she added, “I won’t be thinking back to how much it cost to sing Carnegie Hall or Notre Dame.”
Bergin was fortunate to be leaving Napa High with such awesome memories, Manter said. But what about “the kids who didn’t get to go, who won’t be remembering that at all?”