SAVE OLD TOWN SCHOOL
STATEMENT TO THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS NOV. 29, 2018
Members of the Board of Directors, Ms. Phillips, and all of us who are here because we care so much about the Old Town School:
My name is Rich Gordon. I’m a journalism professor at Northwestern University, and I’ve been a student at the Old Town School for almost 18 years, usually taking two or more classes per session. I’m here with eight other long-time students representing Save Old Town School, a group that formed shortly after the announcement that the School was planning to sell 909 W. Armitage.
Thank you very much for inviting us to speak with you today. We are all going to try to keep our composure. But if you see anger – or tears – you should know that it’s because we all CARE SO MUCH about the School and are just sick that we have gotten to this point.
Before we get into the meat of our presentation, I’d like each of our group to quickly introduce themselves - by name and how long they’ve been taking classes or lessons at the School.
We are here, first, to deliver each of you copies of more than 130 letters to the board collected over the past week. Michelle Stenzel and Janna Henning, who coordinated our “letters to the board” campaign, will read you a few excerpts, and we’ll give you each a hard copy at the end of our presentation.
On November 20, 2018, the Save Old Town School group put out a call to the community, asking for copies of letters that School supporters had written, or would write, to the Board of Directors about the recent events. In the course of seven days, we received the enclosed 136 letters, and we'll provide you each with a copy after our group’s presentation.
You’ll see that the letters include expressions of sadness, dismay and anger, but also stories about the impact the school has had on people’s lives, and also many, many offers to help.
We’d like to give you a preview of the letters by reading a few excerpts.
MICHELLE & JANNA ALTERNATE READING THESE
Kathryn said in her letter:
“909 West Armitage is a space of positivity. Everyone who walks through the doors for their first core guitar class says the same thing: ‘This is something I always wanted to do.’ How often do you go anywhere where you can look around and know that everyone wants to be there? That energy sits in the bones of 909 West Armitage.”
“The staff and students of Old Town School are not like the managers, employees and customers of a normal for-profit organization. We’re invested in the success of the school and engaged in a way most businesses would kill for. Harnessing and building on this engagement can unleash a host of benefits for the school, including ideas, promotions, and donations.”
“Those of you who think you are familiar with Old Town but who have not attended a healthy sample of its many offerings, have not learned to make music with others … you simply do not understand the transcendent value of this storied place. Lives are transformed here. People become themselves here. They heal, love and grow through the medium of music. This is not a business. It must be self-supporting and must be run as a business, but its board must understand how much more than that it is.”
“I’m not sure if you realize it, but the Old Town School is a non-religious religious institution. That is how strongly people in the community feel about it. I am not just a customer. I am not just a student. I am an empowered member of the Old Town School community. That’s why the announcement of the sale was so shocking. A community like ours does not just issue a press release. It calls a town hall meeting. It seeks solutions by tapping the enthusiasm of its members. ... Trust me, I know that not everyone will get behind a strategic decision: You can’t make everyone happy. But unless you clearly explain your strategy and make an effort to talk to those who care deeply about the school, you are convincing no one. And the school will suffer.”
“The outrage being expressed in response to the sale of the building at 909 Armitage might come as a surprise to some board members and administrators. However, it is no surprise to long-time students who care about the school. Over and over, students have offered advice about how to increase enrollment and improve the student experience. Over and over, we have been ignored or dismissed. The announcement of 909 was simply the tipping point that pushed us from frustration to action.”
We sincerely hope that you read each letter, and that you listen to the community’s voices. Thank you.
Thank you, Michelle and Janna.
As you know, in addition to those who wrote these letters, there are now more than 8,000 people who have signed our change.org petition. Whatever their reasons for signing, I think it’s fair to say that all of them -- and all of us -- were shocked to hear about the planned sale of 909. We hope you now realize that the School’s communication of this decision was totally inadequate. And we hope you understand the anguish we feel -- for ourselves and for our friends on the faculty and staff -- when they fear for their livelihoods and, in the case of staff, have been threatened with layoffs.
Some of us were aware the School was struggling financially. We’d seen the steady increase in class prices, and we knew that enrollment was declining. But we didn’t realize how bad things had gotten.
Now, though, we’ve dug into the data. Student enrollment has been declining for SEVEN consecutive years. With or without 909, if that does not change, the School is going to die.
What has the School done over that period to try to change the enrollment trend? I can tell you what I’ve seen: Zero marketing on social media. Zero personalized emails. A few radio ads, which are more expensive and less effective than digital marketing -- and whose results aren’t trackable because the radio ads don’t ask people to use a code when they call to sign up for a class.
Elimination of the First Friday program at Lincoln, which was a great way of introducing new people to what the School is all about. Elimination of printed class catalogs that people wandering into the building could pick up, get excited about and take with them. Website redesigns that made it *harder* to sign up for classes. Higher prices that have caused many of us to take fewer classes than we used to. Elimination of multi-class and senior citizen discounts. Is it any wonder enrollment is down?
We asked ourselves: Could the Board be unaware of what the administration IS – and ISN’T – doing that are contributing to the problem?
What we have learned is, apparently, that you were being told nothing could be done. That people prefer to learn guitar on the Internet. That young people these days are into Electronic Dance Music. That the School had tried to turn things around, but was powerless to stop the trend.
We reject all of these propositions. And we hope that you will agree with us. Let us
help you – working with the administration, faculty, staff and donors – build a stronger Old Town School.
All of us understand that it is you, the members of the board of directors, who have the heavy responsibility of making the difficult decisions that will allow the School to survive and thrive. We know you intend only the best for the School, and we truly appreciate the time and money you are contributing.
We also, truly, want to understand all the factors that went into your decision to put 909 on the market. I think most of us would, even if reluctantly, support the sale of the building if we felt it was necessary to preserve the School. But the way the 909 decision was made and communicated not only has failed to convince anyone -- I think it’s made it harder for you to accomplish the fundraising goals you have in mind.
While I still think of myself as a young person, people my age are starting to decide who we’re going to donate money to after we retire, and what charities we’re going to put in our wills. People like me are also the people most likely to have a sentimental attachment to 909 West Armitage.
I’m now going to turn to Lauren Miller, who’s going to tell you a bit about our group.
In just a few days after the 909 announcement, Save Old Town School coalesced around a mission statement and three key objectives, all of which can be found on our website, saveoldtownschool.org.
Our mission statement is:
To mobilize the skills, passion and energy of the community of Old Town School students and supporters and provide a channel through which our community can strengthen its engagement with the School and support its future viability, community roots, and ongoing mission to teach and celebrate music and cultural expression.
Our three objectives can be summarized as follows:
To put the sale of 909 on hold until the School’s community has an opportunity to get more information about the factors underlying that decision;
To ensure that strategic decisions about the School are made in the interests of, and with meaningful input from, all of the School’s stakeholders.
To establish an “ongoing collaboration” involving the School’s administration, faculty, students and other stakeholders -- so those of us who love and care about the School can contribute to solving its problems.
We are here tonight not to criticize the decisions that have been made in the past, but rather, to implore you to turn to us for help.
We would MUCH rather channel the passion, energy and talents that have enabled Save Old Town School to build and engage our community so powerfully in the past six weeks … toward helping you turn around the School’s declining enrollment, strengthen its sense of community, and increase student involvement in the School’s outreach efforts. All we ask is that the sale of 909 be paused to allow time to rebuild the community’s trust and work together to address the School’s many challenges.
Within our group you can find:
● financial experts who have already put together multiyear spreadsheets analyzing trends in expenses, revenues and enrollment;
● marketing and communications specialists who have amazing ideas for how to tell the School’s story in ways that will attract new students to our classes;
● businesspeople with expertise in building budgets and finding creative ways to close gaps between revenues and expenditures.
● donors who need to believe that their contributions are being used wisely to support and preserve the Old Town School.
● and most importantly, the students: the people who understand best what makes the Old Town School special, because the School has truly changed all of our lives -- and, in some cases, actually saved our lives.
On Saturday, we are holding a Save Old Town School town hall. At that meeting, we plan to build and populate committees including: Class Enrollment; Fundraising; Marketing & Outreach; 909 Building Utilization; possibly others. Ultimately, we hope this can evolve into an Old Town School Student Advisory Board -- a true partner for you and the administration, fully invested in building enrollment and helping raise money to ensure the School’s future.
I’m now going to give the floor back to Rich to wrap up.
As you well know, our School was originally established as a partnership between students and teachers. People who believed in the power of music to bring people together … who believed that learning to play and sing with others was transformative … and who set out, together, to build a community around music.
We ask you this: How can it be that a school founded by teachers and students … now finds itself in a situation where the teachers are so unhappy they are trying to form a union, and where the students’ discontent was simmering so close below the surface that the 909 announcement brought us together -- almost overnight -- to fight that decision? How could it be that the Board apparently was mostly unaware of the unhappiness permeating the School?
We are sure you know things we don’t know -- about the School’s finances, about making tough business decisions, about what big donors want and expect. But if you had asked any of us before making the decision to sell 909, we would have told you some things that you just must not have been aware of.
Before I close, I want to address one other important part of the School’s legacy -- and its future. The Old Town School, and the folk music movement that spawned it, were inextricably linked to the civil rights movement, to the fight for social justice, to the need for constructive engagement with the less fortunate folks in our community.
We who stand before you understand that we are privileged. And we celebrate this legacy. We absolutely believe that music can be a powerful force for social change. And we believe that the School MUST reach new communities -- especially people who are younger and more diverse than the current student population.
That’s important not only because some of your most loyal students are getting older, but also because, in a city as complex and diverse as Chicago, it is the right thing to do. We want to help you extend the School’s reach -- to involve MORE students from MORE parts of Chicago get engaged MORE deeply in the Old Town School experience.
Already, the Old Town School is far more than “just banjos and guitars.” Go sit in on Shelley Miller’s Punk Ensemble or her Out Rock Ensemble focusing on music by LGBTQ artists. Consider our classes focusing on Reggae, Afrobeat or Mardi Gras music. Brazilian music, Soul music, Grunge music, Klezmer music. Classes in African drumming, or Brazilian percussion. Learn Middle Eastern belly dance, Argentinian tango, and the way they dance in Bollywood movies.
Our community already knows something about embracing diverse cultures. We believe that it is entirely possible both to serve current students AND to connect with new communities. We also believe that the best way to support the School’s outreach activities is to ensure, first, that its core business -- its reason for being -- THE SCHOOL -- is financially healthy.
When we look back on the events of the past six weeks, we truly hope we will all come to see this as a pivotal moment, a turning point when the ENTIRE Old Town School community -- the Board, the administration, the faculty, the staff and the students -- came together and began to work together. Just as they did in previous difficult moments when the School’s survival was in question.
We’re now going to pass out the binders of letters we’ve collected for you.
Thank you again for inviting us to join you tonight. If you have questions, we’d be happy to try to answer them.