A decision by Wellesley school district officials to reassign a popular high school orchestra conductor to the elementary level has struck a bad chord with local students and their parents.
Dozens of Wellesley’s student musicians and parents went to a School Committee meeting last week to protest the change in responsibilities for Mary Alice McCann, who has headed up both the middle school’s and high school’s orchestras for the past few years.
The reassignment for the fall has McCann swapping her high school duties for a role in the town’s elementary schools, while continuing to head up the Wellesley Middle School’s orchestra. The current elementary music teacher is slated to head up the high school’s orchestra.
McCann declined to comment on her new position, but an assistant superintendent said that she had expressed interest in teaching in the elementary schools. Her supporters were not convinced.
Kenyon Alexander, 16, said he donned the tuxedo usually reserved for orchestra performances to add emphasis to his plea to School Committee members that they push for a reconsideration of the decision.
“She has given me knowledge that is irreplaceable to me, and that I haven’t gotten anywhere else,” Alexander, who will be a senior in September, said over the phone last week. “It’s a crime to replace her because I want other people to learn as much as I did.”
His mother, Nan Alexander, who helped organize the presentation to the School Committee, brought a stack of more than 50 letters from students, recent graduates, and even other local conductors pleading with officials to reverse the decision.
Nan Alexander said that under McCann’s direction, the program has been split into both chamber and full orchestras to help tailor teaching to each student’s level.
The Wellesley orchestras have also recently been winning gold and silver medals from the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association, and McCann was named “Orchestra Director of the Year” in 2012 by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association, Nan said.
“She took a fledgling program and built it into a powerhouse,” she said.
School Committee chairwoman Diane Campbell said its members are not allowed to discuss personnel changes, and assistant superintendent Salvatore Petralia said the reassignment is due to “programmatic changes.”
“Ms. McCann has expressed a strong interest in teaching at the elementary school level, and, in fact, has ten years of experience as a successful strings teacher at the elementary level,” Petralia said in an e-mail. “Her continuation as the teacher/conductor at the middle school, and new assignment as teacher/conductor at the elementary level maintains her responsibility for two-thirds’’ of the school district’s strings program.
However, some local parents scoffed at Petralia’s insistence that McCann volunteered for the elementary school job.
“I don’t believe that for one second,” said Matthew Kelley, who has two daughters in the middle school’s orchestra.
Kelley said that during the middle school’s recent spring concert, McCann told the audience that there was no place else she’d rather be than with kids at the high school.
Cynthia Scott, whose son is a rising senior in the orchestra, said McCann had started planning to take the high schoolers on a trip to Europe next April, and held an informational meeting a few weeks ago for parents.
“I know she wasn’t planning on leaving her job because she had met with the parents for a planning session about what this would entail,” Scott said. “I don’t think she sought out the change. I don’t know anyone who has spoken with her about her wanting to move to the elementary school,’’ she said, adding that she found Petralia’s response “shocking.”
Kelley also said he didn’t think teaching beginners matched up with McCann’s demonstrated skills.
“At the elementary level, you’re probably just trying to keep the kids on rhythm, and maybe working on dynamics. But at the high school level, it’s a nuanced and complex art, and she just excels at it,” he said.
Scott contended that the whole situation could have been avoided somehow.
“Not knowing what the problem was, all I can say is, couldn’t there have been another solution without removing her from the high school?”
Administration officials said the reassignment won’t affect McCann’s pay, and Petralia said conducting at the middle school level “represents a majority of her current assignment.”
Petralia said that although he could not comment on this particular reassignment, decisions on personnel matters like these originate in the staff member’s department, and are vetted by principals, department heads, curriculum officials, and the district’s human resources department before the superintendent makes the final call.
Petralia also said the reassignment was final — much to the chagrin of the parents, who said administrators should factor in the public’s opinion before making a decision.
“I’m outraged at the process,” Scott said. “This all happened in secrecy behind closed doors. There was no opportunity for the rest of the community to voice our support.”
Kelley agreed, noting that the students decided on their schedules for next year before knowing about the instructor switch.
“The way they did it was terrible and unfair to the kids, and betrays everyone’s trust,” he said.
And the reassignment will seemingly end McCann’s local career on a low note, Kelley said.
“Putting her in the elementary school is just such a mismatch of skills,” Kelley said. “It’s like taking the starting pitcher for the Red Sox, and then telling him that he’ll be pitching relief for the minors. It in no way makes sense.”