Ron Isaac’s Commentary: The Memory of Extracurricular Joy in Our Schools

Sep 7, 2021 by

The recent death of Bruce Birnel, my former colleague on staff at a middle school in Queens, reminded me of how our New York City public schools have been decimated.

Ours was located in a relatively affluent neighborhood, but throughout the city, gifted or just enthusiastic kids could choose from a splendid array  of course electives and extracurricular activities which often inspired them into adulthood. 

Presently, other mandates and priorities have supplanted cultural adventures, such as high-stakes testing preparation and various empty fillers that sound substantive and are more affordable.

At my school, every child chose one of several music or drama options that are now pretty much extinct citywide.  These performances were almost Broadway or Carnegie Hall-worthy.

Birnel led a chorus that performed on a level equal to the Metropolitan Opera children’s chorus, though their repertoire extended beyond classical music. 

If only their artistic discipline could be replicated in their classrooms, mused the school dean. Our school also had an orchestra, led by Rose-Marie Guzzo, a highly-trained violinist, consisting of dozens of string, woodwind, brass and percussion instrumentalists who played in much better tune with each other than do our nation’s political parties. And then there was Karl Blumenkrantz, an extraordinary bandleader, whose students played jazz, dixieland and show-tunes with a professionalism that could have landed them gigs at high-end weddings.

Several times during the school year, they all performed at evening concerts that were attended by much of the school’s student and parent populations, prominent local politicians and a smattering of cultural icons. There was also at least one full-length Broadway musical production.  The one that I will remember until my brain dies, is the spectacular rendering of Guys and Dolls.
In addition to the arts, there were many electives, activities and clubs oriented to science, sports and other areas.

All these offerings taught not only skills and gave our students experience and appreciation, they were morale-boosters for the entire community.  They also boosted career education, social maturity and self-confidence.Today such enrichment opportunities have mostly wasted away in our New York City public schools. Even allowing for the fact that every generation tends to lament the present and idealize “the good old days”, this decline is undeniable. 

But it is fruitless to yearn for the restoration of what has eroded away.  The Garden of Eden must defer to Death Valley.

Ron Isaac

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