Come this August at any county high school, students can be seen high stepping across a field, making geometric shapes with their bodies and playing, in some cases, imaginary instruments.
It is a rite of passage. Any high-school student wanting to take an advanced band class during the school year is required to first pay his dues as a member of the school's marching band.
It is also time-consuming and requires traveling to competitions, and the regulations are not consistent from school to school, said members of the School Board.
"I can see both sides of the story," said Jim Fraser, president of the South Lakes Band Boosters. "My philosophy is if marching band wasn't there at the games, people would say, 'Hey, where's the band?'"
Based on concerns raised by parents, the School Board on Monday, June 10, discussed with staff the marching-band requirement and its effects on the learning process.
EACH OF THE COUNTY'S 24 high schools, except Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, requires students to participate in marching band in order to take one of the advanced band courses offered at the school, any band class with the course code of 9234, normally a performance-band class such as symphonic band.
However, School Board members said they have been getting calls and e-mails from parents complaining about the requirement because of the time commitment, the fund-raising, the competition schedule, and at some schools the lack of flexibility when it comes to exemptions from the marching requirement.
"How do we address this because [the parents] have legitimate issues, without weakening the program?" said School Board member Rita Thompson (At large).
Typically, participation in marching band requires a time commitment of six-hours-per-week practices before the two-month season begins and then tapers off as the season continues, said Denton Stokes, Robinson Secondary band director. The bands play at Friday-night home football games and take part in three or four competitions on Saturday evenings. They also have a fund-raiser in which band members are expected to take part. The marching band ends when the football season ends.
Each school determines how many competitions the band will compete in and sets its own rules governing practice and exceptions. Madison in Vienna and West Springfield high schools make no accommodations for student exemptions, while Langley High School in McLean does not take part in any competitions and allows students to participate in fall sports. In fact, 15 schools exempt varsity football players and cheerleaders from marching band.
The schools are mixed about making accommodations for students in other varsity fall sports, ranging from no accommodations to "shared accommodations," where special arrangements can be made between the band director, sports coach or student activities director. Nearly all of the schools make shared accommodations for other school activities as well, but none will make exemptions for non-school-related interests.
"Typically, parent letters and complaints come from freshman parents whose children have made advanced band, because they suddenly have a plethora of choices and are stymied," said Roger Tomhave, the Fairfax County Pubic Schools' fine arts coordinator. "We have over 4,000 students in band, and every year we get about a half-dozen complaints."
TOMHAVE SAID that not only does the marching band provide large-group experience, leadership opportunities and peer review, it is also required for college scholarships.
"Students at the college level are expected to march," Tomhave said.
In addition, he said, each school offers at least one other band class, outside of the advance course, for students who do not want to march.
For Fraser, the issue is not the time commitment but the lack of credit the band members receive, given the amount of time and effort the students devote to learning how to play and march properly.
He said the time his daughter devotes to the marching band in terms of practice and competitions is no less than what his son went through for wrestling.
"It's no different than when I went to my son's wrestling meets," Fraser said. "Big meets could be scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
However, some School Board members were not convinced the advanced band students are the appropriate ones to have the requirement, questioning why the beginning and intermediate band members weren't required to march instead.
"Education is for the benefit of students, and I see the requirement for marching band for advanced band for the benefit of the band," said School Board member Christian Braunlich (Lee).
Others on the board pointed out their own children participated in band and found it to be a positive experience, saying they were reluctant to drop the requirement. A majority of board members did express interest in creating a consistent policy throughout the county governing the marching band and its acceptable exemptions.
"I think we need to look at the flexibility," said School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully).
Deputy Superintendent of Schools Alan Leis said the schools system has already taking steps to address concerns by requiring each school to draft a policy, in writing, governing the band and its exemptions, and to submit the draft to the central office for review.
"I think this is the first step," Leis said.