By Tina Calabro
As fall turns to winter, high school football fields are suddenly without their determined athletes and rousing marching bands. The autumn rituals haven't changed much over the years, but in one important way they have. More students with disabilities are making their way in the mainstream of high school life, and many are finding a place in high school marching bands.
"It's awesome to see how far we've come," says Tom Snyder, arts coordinator and former marching band director for the West Allegheny School District. "This has been exciting for me as an educator."
It is a development he couldn't have envisioned when he began his teaching career in 1980. "The change in education cannot be overstated," he said. "From kindergarten up, there is total diversity in the room. In a more ignorant time, everything was exclusive."
Today, band directors in his district and elsewhere work closely with special education staff and parents to ensure the success of students of all abilities. Even in the realm of band competitions, there is a new normal, said Mr. Snyder, who is in his 10th year as president of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Marching Band Association, a consortium of high school bands that compete against each other.
"As educators, we are champions of all kids. This is more important than any trophy. Band directors are not worrying about lowering scores. The challenge is how do we find a way for kids to achieve."
Some students with disabilities, such as those who use wheelchairs, are recognizable on the field, but many are not. Consider Andrew Duch, a senior who plays trumpet in the Hampton High School marching band. Andrew, who has autism, began music lessons in fourth grade. Upon moving to Hampton in eighth grade, he was on track to participate in the entire range of band activities — band camp, half time shows, parades, festivals and trips that span from the Kentucky Derby his freshman year to Disney World's Magic Kingdom this coming March.
"It's really been great for me," said Andrew. "I really like it."
Hampton band director Chad Himmler, learning support teacher Amy Holtz and paraprofessional Lisa Rogers collaborate to support Andrew and other band members with disabilities. The agility required for the marching drills are usually the most challenging, but a variety of teaching techniques and modifications can be employed.
"Andrew has improved so much over his four years with the band and has worked very hard," said Mr. Himmler, who added that learning has been a two-way street. "I've learned that [students with disabilities] are capable of achieving the same expectation levels as all of the other kids. It's helped me gain a clearer image of life's big picture."
Stephen Liebrock, a senior at North Allegheny, is also enjoying the marching band experience, made even sweeter by the football team's third consecutive WPIAL championship this season. Stephen, who has Down syndrome, plays in the percussion line.
Like Andrew, Stephen is in one of the area's largest marching bands (North Allegheny has 300 members; Hampton has 220). It's "a powerful inclusive experience," said Stephen's mother, Noreen Liebrock. "The band directors [Todd Stefan, Steve Baldanzi and Courtney Geary] have enthusiasm for every student, all abilities. Never once did North Allegheny say, 'This can't happen.' "
In fact, the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities is the students' right. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state regulations, students with disabilities must have equal access to extracurricular activities and the same type of "supplementary aids and services" that support their academic education.
According to Lu Randall, executive director of the ABOARD's Autism Connection of PA, based in Etna, marching band gives students with autism and other types of disabilities "a chance to show their talents, advance their social skills and participate in an activity that translates well to their adult lives."
Amy Holtz, the learning support teacher at Hampton, said she wants to encourage educators who may feel they can't support students with disabilities in the band to know that they can. "You have support right at your fingertips" she said. "If a student wants to be in the band, he or she can be set up to be successful." The social milieu is also a plus, she added. "Students thrive in these environments. The kids are so, so nice."
Indeed, both Andrew and Stephen said that "hanging out with friends" has been the best part of marching band. Andrew's mother, Cindy Duch, noted the natural support found in those friendships. "As a freshman, Andrew was very unsure about the moves. A senior trombone player helped him, and other kids have always helped him out. They are very understanding and make sure he's successful."
"These are the lessons that all the kids take away," said Mr. Snyder of West Allegheny. "Diversity. Tolerance. It's a win-win for everybody."
Asked about his experience playing percussion in the marching band at Bishop Canevin High School, 2002 graduate Nick Sinagra, who has spinal muscular atrophy, recalled that "for the first time I felt like I was part of something and doing something to contribute."
As someone who played an instrument with his right hand while driving a power wheelchair with his left, "marching certainly wasn't easy," he said with a laugh. "But I proved that I could step outside my comfort zone and still be successful. Looking back now, more than anything else, that was important."
That sense of accomplishment is something Cindy Duch sees in her son. "Usually, I'm all nerves when he's performing on the field, but this year has been different," she said. "There were no missteps. He didn't skip a beat. That was a result of his hard work, his wanting to do it, putting himself through it."
"For the first time, I saw him get lost among the kids out there. I couldn't tell him from the others. That was great."