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Band Aid

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The booster organization offers a smorgasbord of fund-raising options—from direct sales to volunteer opportunities paid by the hour.

Band membership demands a huge investment of time and money, one that would be out of reach for many hard-working families. Despite the tremendous variations in their ability to pay, few parents are exempt from the $1,000 annual fee, which doubles during a major trip year.

"I knew it would cost something for my daughter to be in it, but I had no idea how expensive it was," says Davis. "Money was tight, but they offered all the opportunities I needed to raise the money."

The booster organization offers a smorgasbord of fund-raising options--from direct sales to volunteer opportunities paid by the hour. A percentage of the money raised from the activities is credited to the contributing family.

For students whose parents still cannot afford the freight, or the few who refuse to contribute, the boosters offer scholarships subsidized by extra fund-raising efforts.

The stature of the booster organization began to grow a decade ago when Glen Adsit, an alumnus, took over the directorship of the band. The band had gained a reputation for its musical excellence but was lacking in marching skills. With a vision to improve the group's field performance, Adsit sought greater parent involvement to boost the program. Parents and students began pouring more effort into the after-school endeavor, recalls Adsit, who is now the assistant director of bands at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The high profile and stiff standards that have continued to emerge, however, are not for everyone. There are students and parents who decide the hours and days and weeks of practice and the exorbitant fees are not worth it for the few minutes at a time that the band performs. Dozens of students who take music classes and play in the concert and symphonic bands that practice during class forgo the extracurricular marching band, citing the lack of time, interest, or funds.

"Money was tight, but they offered all the opportunities I needed to raise the money."

Chris Davis,
parent

Even those students who do make the commitment sometimes wonder if it is all worth it. Some parents admit to pushing children to get ready for practice or competitions when the routine gets tedious. One of the most common complaints McGrath hears is with the schedule: Practices are too long, there are too many competitions, and the band members have no free time.

The schedule is unusually busy. At most high schools, for instance, the band performs at home football games twice a month. With loyalties to two high schools, the Plymouth-Canton band has a home game every week.

"It is all about what kind of band you choose to have," says Roland J. Thomas Jr., a Plymouth-Canton school board member for 14 of the past 16 years. In some nearby districts, Thomas says, band booster organizations deliberately hold their fund raising and competitions to a minimum. They do not want the band to become the monster undertaking it has at Plymouth-Canton. "It has become a choice of parents and students to be very competitive. I really do believe that's a good thing."

Thursday nights are bustling on the Plymouth-Canton campus. During the season, more than two dozen "washer moms" bring in hangers full of newly washed and pressed uniforms, one of the tasks they volunteer for throughout the fall.

Ellie Richards washed a stack of uniforms each week when her son Jeff, now a junior, started as a drummer in the band two years ago. This year, she is in charge of the operation. Her predecessor made it look so easy, which is one of the ways that active parents succeed in recruiting replacements. She had Richards fooled.

To get ready for the new season, she started collecting uniforms from the students last spring. After taking inventory of how many needed to be dry cleaned, repaired, or replaced, she rallied her troops. Throughout the summer, Richards sponsored sewing groups, long sessions spent getting the uniforms into respectable condition.

"They're teenagers, and by the time you get the uniforms back, they look like their bedrooms--a shambles," says Richards. "The zippers are broken, snaps are missing, they are all wrinkled."

Richards spends about 20 hours a week making the band look goodand stretching the life of the uniformswhich can cost up to $450 each. Even when she is in the stands, she is sizing up the marchers, making mental notes of who needs a hem fixed or shoes polished.

Thursday nights also bring most other band parents to school to place their orders for gift certificates from local grocery stores, retail shops, dry cleaners, and specialty stores. The vouchers are part of the band boosters' most profitable fund-raising venture to date.

Parents enlist friends and neighbors to buy the certificates, which are redeemable at face value at dozens of stores. The stores pay the band anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the total purchases. The program earns the band up to $80,000 a year and has eliminated the need for many of the door-to-door sales the boosters relied on previously.

"I can write a check or fund-raise," says Sandy Baxter, whose daughter Catherine is in her fourth year on the color guard. "I choose to fund-raise. I put out very little of my own money."

Baxter and her fellow band parents have sold steaks and Avon products and Tupperware. They have also stuffed more than 200,000 envelopes for one of the Big Three automakers and sold hot dogs at competitions.

Beyond the dozens of fund-raising activities, many of the parents aren't even aware of all that is done behind the scenes.

"I'm still learning things that I never knew were going on before," says Tom Wysocki, president of the boosters. "I was totally oblivious to the whole uniform thing. I just thought they magically got cleaned and handed out to the kids each week."

Now, Wysocki and his wife, Edie, know the many ingredients all too well. Recently, on his first day off work in weeks, Tom Wysocki was making phone calls and sending faxes from the golf course. He had to order the 100 cases of soda, juice, and bottled water they would consume, and give directions to a magician who would provide entertainment at camp.

"There are always money concerns and worries about people's ability to raise enough funds," Wysocki says. "And we have to constantly remind people to groom someone to take their place. It has to be a well-oiled machine. We can't operate in crisis mode."

Band booster organizations have done the same to keep their programs alive at schools around the country. One of the most popular extracurricular activities at high schools large and small, bands are also generally underfunded and one of the first activities to fall victim to the budget ax. Parents have long realized that the programs survive and thrive only with their backing. Across the nation, such groups have proved themselves expert at organizing and fund raising.

Booster clubs, and especially those for high school bands, it seems, are models of parent involvement, experts say.

"Booster programs tend to be pretty stable. The band director may change, but the booster program stays," says Joyce Epstein, the director for the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. The center works with districts nationwide to build parent involvement in all phases of education.

"They are a good, initial example of the kind of stability we seek across the board for all types of involvement," says Epstein. "The goal is to get it so that regardless of who is [in charge] or the individual strengths that may disappear as people move on, they remain stable."

One of the most popular extracurricular activities at high schools, bands are also underfunded and one of the first activities to fall victim to the budget ax.

That stability, however, can sometimes blur the lines of authority. The organizations' fund-raising success and investment of hundreds of volunteer hours can bring with them certain political clout and expectations. Some booster organizations have saved band funding through well-organized displays of support at school board meetings and additional fund-raising activities.

Sometimes, the parents' mastery of the system has given them too much muscle, and they have made power plays against their band directors. Even at Plymouth-Canton, parents have pushed the limits, though everyone involved there says it is now a model of cooperation.

"It can be very scary to have such involvement," says Adsit, who insisted from the outset that the parents participate in all aspects of the band except the musical philosophy or the program curriculum. "I've seen programs go down in flames because the parents had too much control."

Adsit remembers one parent, whose child failed to gain a top position in the band, questioning his judgment. As president of the band boosters, the parent pushed pretty hard for special consideration on the matter. But after consulting with the group's other officers, Adsit used his authority to remove the president from the board.

"I felt it was an abuse of power. It got fairly obnoxious and wasn't the type of thing that I felt I could resolve otherwise," recalls Adsit, who left the post in 1992. "To call me on my musicianship was like putting a thorn at the very heart of my being."

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