Teachers strike silences school band

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Missy Zelker stood atop a 4-foot high podium at a football field in Franconia Township, speaking into a microphone headset that boomed her commands through a loudspeaker.

''OK guys. Can you hear me?''

''Yes,'' the group of 50 shouted back.

''We'll march, but no playing music. One, two,'' she counted, moving her arms in time to the beat, which the drummers picked up. The Souderton Area High School Big Red Band stepped forward in one row, then separated to form a double row.

Zelker noticed something wasn't right. ''You're going to need to don't slow down so much.'' So the band repeated the formation, and she offered encouragement: ''That was a lot better.''

For a couple hours on Thursday afternoon, the band practiced, as Zelker, a senior and the band's drum major, led the way. She and her bandmates are practicing on their own -- victims, as are all 6,700 students in the district, of a teachers strike that began Tuesday and left them without band directors to supervise them.

That means they can't perform at Souderton football games -- yes, football and other sports continue despite the strike because coaches, even if they teach in the district, are covered by separate contracts.

And it's possible the band could miss the first of several fall competitions later this month, said Rich Sharp, president of the Souderton Big Red Band Boosters.

The band, Sharp explained, is considered a co-curricular activity for which students can get class credit and is an extension of the classroom. Band directors who are teachers are on strike, and while some assistant band directors don't teach in Souderton, they decided not to work with the band, he said.

Sharp said it's unfortunate the teachers and district can't agree.

''It's also unfortunate that we're seeing the sports teams have their regular practices and games,'' he said. ''It's unfortunate that we don't have support staff that wants to help out.''

Natalie Dietterich, a junior who plays clarinet, sees what's happened as unfair: ''If the football team should play, so should the marching band,'' she said.

Rob Broderick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the union would rather see the coaches not coach.

''We prefer that they not cross our picket lines,'' he said. ''It gives the impression that sports is more important than school.''

But Zelker, for one, isn't bitter. ''We're not getting the short end of the stick. It means we have to become stronger. To grow,'' she said before Thursday's practice. ''The directors, even though they are on strike, support us.''

Katelyn Frueh, a junior and member of the color guard, agreed.

''We're doing this for ourselves, for the good of the band. We want our season to be good.''

So Zelker, Frueh and others have tried to do what they can to keep the band sharp during the strike. They can't rehearse on school property without school supervision so they've become a band on the run as they seek places to practice. A band section met in a church one day, for example. Then the entire band had its first practice together at Franconia's municipal park. This week, the band may be somewhere else.

By practicing on their own, the students are showing their maturity, Sharp said.

''We are proud of our students who are trying to make the best of a bad situation,'' he said.

Practicing will help them become more familiar with their routines. While students can give each other feedback, it's not the same level of constructive criticism they'd get from band directors.

''We have a big disadvantage without our instructors,'' said Keith Hunsicker, a junior who plays the snare drum. ''I'm not exactly mad about the situation. It just hurts us more than sports.''

Tracy Cole was one of several band member mothers who watched the Thursday practice.

''They're motivated,'' said Cole, who served six years on the school board before losing in the 2007 election. ''They're definitely taking pride in the program.''

Barb Denison, with two children in the band, said she is frustrated by what seems to be conflicting information from both sides of the strike.

''I don't know the truth,'' she said. ''Whatever it is, the kids are the ones who get hurt.''

Despite the adversity of the strike, Katelyn Frueh, the junior member of the color guard, summed up the band's attitude: ''We'll march on.''


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