GROTON -- Determined to do what they could to change the fortunes of students in the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School music program, a number of parents have joined together. Their goal is to persuade school officials to reverse a decision preventing the chamber choir and jazz band from making a field trip to Italy next year.
The effort gathered strength over the summer after conducting an unofficial survey of parents with students in the music program to find out where they stood on allowing their children to go on the Italy trip.
"It started with our children, actually," said Lisa Sousa, one of the parents involved. "Tim and Diane Mahan's son, Greg, who is president of the music honor society, and my daughter were disappointed by the outcome of the earlier vote, so I suggested that they take some action. 'Let's talk about what we could do to start a petition going.' That's how it started.
"The kids heard from other children that they were interested, too," she said, "and as they got to talking they found that others were certainly interested. But that didn't mean the parents were interested. That's why we did the survey, to find out how much support they had among the parents.
"Later, we held a parents meeting just to talk about the trip and what the implications were and to consider different perspectives," continued Sousa. "We talked to parents whose children attended the Olympic trip so we could better understand their experiences and make sure we were considering everything we needed to before moving forward.
The survey, conducted so that parents could reply to questions anonymously, resulted in strong support for the trip. It emboldened supportive parents into approaching the School Committee with a request that they reconsider a vote taken at the end of the last academic year that refused permission for the trip.
The effort met with limited success.
Although School Committee members agreed to discuss the issue further, they did not vote immediately to reverse their earlier decision.
"We met with other parents in recent weeks about the possibility of attending another School Committee meeting after conducting the survey," explained Lori Sullivan, a parent with a daughter in the chamber choir. "We conducted the survey to see if enough parents wanted to go forward with the Italy trip and if there were, we would proceed with a meeting, but we wouldn't want to do that if there wasn't support."
Tim and Diane Mahan and Lisa and Brian Sousa brought concerned parents together to get the survey off the ground and organize meetings for the purpose.
Sullivan said the original School Committee vote denying the trip took many parents by surprise coming as it did on the heels of a successful trip to London to perform at the Olympics.
"We were stunned," said Sullivan of the vote. "We just felt that it was a great opportunity for the children to travel to Europe and perform and watch others perform. I do understand that there may be financial restraints on people and if they have a child that went to London that cost a significant amount of money, to spend more on a second trip now could be an issue. I also understand that with their peers going, there could be pressure on those who are not but it's not mandatory that they go."
"I was surprised only insofar as I'd expected they'd reach out to parents before the vote since the major objections around the issue seemed to focus on the ability of parents to pay for it," said Sousa. "But a lot of parents said they could and that they should have had a say in it before the decision. That's why we asked the School Committee to reconsider their vote."
An estimate on the cost for the Italy trip by individual students has been set at $3,645.
With strong support for the Italy trip among parents indicated by the survey, organizers felt that the wind was at their backs and were confident going in to a meeting with the School Committee Sept. 11 that they could convince members to hold another vote.
Although members were sympathetic to the parents, those who had voted against the trip the first time believed that the same objections they had then still prevailed, including cost and suspected exploitation by trip sponsor London-based KI Concerts.
It was also noted at the Sept. 11 meeting that half the jazz band did not plan to go on the trip. Was it useful for the other half to go with half the musicians absent?
"We got responses from more than half of the jazz band parents that were in support of the trip," confirmed Sousa. "You can still perform with less than the entire group, whether jazz or chamber group. You just tailor the music to the instrumentation that you have. There's no expectation that you need a full ensemble to perform."
Despite the objections, however, committee members agreed to reconsider their earlier decision but postponed another vote until Oct. 9 to give them time to explore the matter further. The committee invited Sousa to return to answer any other questions they might have.
"I'm sure the School Committee is listening and its members are being very considerate and careful in their judgment," said Sousa. "That's all we can ask. They're doing their job and I think that's appropriate. But they're also being respectful of the parents and what their wishes might be, too. So I was very happy when they agreed to reconsider their vote."
"It would have been nice to have them vote at the Sept. 11 meeting," said Sullivan, "but I think they needed further information that the parents could provide. There was no time on the agenda that night. If they needed more time to talk among themselves about the decision we wanted them to make, that was fine with us."
"I think the Italy trip would be very advantageous to the students because it's just a really good cultural thing to do," said Sullivan. "They'll be going not just to Italy, but to Austria and the Czech Republic, too. It'll all be during Holy Week in Europe so they would be performing in various cathedrals and churches."
If the School Committee decides to reverse its earlier vote, the changed situation will present parents with a new problem: How to raise at least some of the money needed to pay for the trip.
"We have to talk about how to fund the trip and expand our discussion with those parents who didn't respond to the survey," said Sousa. "We have to get feedback from all the families concerned."
"We'll have to put our heads together and come up with some kind of fundraising strategy," commented Sullivan. "But I think we have the support of a lot of people behind us, so we're pretty optimistic that it will all work out."
"I hope that we have a positive outcome for the children's sake," said Sousa. "They've worked so hard and are so committed. Just as an athlete trains with his team, these kids train with theirs. They practice together and outside the classroom. They sing and perform for each other and even write music.
"It's wonderful," said Sousa. "They're really mature and polished because of the experiences they've had. To stand up in front of somebody and perform, that's not an easy thing. So I just hope the issue gets to a point that both the School Committee and parents feel comfortable with."