by Len Lear
(Ed. Note: This article was written before the School District of Philadelphia changed its fall plan from two days a week in the classroom to all virtual classes, at least until Nov. 17.)
A Henry School teacher in Mt. Airy who was honored last year by an educational foundation for staging Broadway musicals performed by elementary school students at a remarkably high level of talent insists that the recently announced Philadelphia School District plan for partially reopening public schools this fall is “a lose, lose plan!”
According to superintendent of schools (since 2012), Dr. William Hite, the plan is “for all schools to start the school year with a hybrid learning model that adheres to local and state public health guidance and allows for social distancing to the greatest extent possible.” At the beginning at least, the schools will be open two days a week for most children for in-classroom instruction and three days a week of remote instruction at home.
“This is a lose, lose situation,” stated Nicole Paulino-Trisdorfer, who has taught music, voice and dance at Henry School for 17 years and whose students have for 15 years staged many Broadway musicals whose three performances almost always sell out. The revenue for the sale of 800 tickets is plowed back into the program. Their latest show, right before the pandemic started, was “Aladdin Jr.” They have also staged “Little Mermaid,” “Into the Woods,” “Annie” and “Seussical the Musical,” among others. It is highly unusual for elementary school children anywhere in the country to regularly put on a fullys taged Broadway musical.
“I have asthma,” said Nicole, 38, “and I am definitely concerned about going back into the building. I think it is ridiculous. My daughter, Olivia (her husband is Josh), is going into kindergarten in the fall at Henry. What if I have a fever? Does the whole school shut down? Not that we don't want to go back to teaching in school. We do, but there are just too many ifs. There are 27 classrooms in the building, about 30 teachers and 515 students. Even if you only had 15 students in a classroom, you would still not be able to maintain social distancing.”
Paulino-Trisdorfer is one of the most respected teachers in the city. There are 386 public schools — elementary, middle and high school — including independently run charter schools, in Philadelphia. According to the latest figures from the School District of Philadelphia, there are about 18,300 public school teachers in the city. Of those about 60, or roughly one in every 300, is chosen each year for a “Distinguished Teachers Award” from the educational Lindback Foundation. Each winning teacher receives a $3,500 prize and is honored at a ceremony.
A committee at each school nominates a teacher for the award, and then a committee from the Lindback Foundation does its own investigation and decides which of those nominees — fewer than one of six — will be chosen to receive the awards. Paulino-Trisdorfer, whose musicals have been reviewed by the Local over the years, always receiving raves, was one of 60 “Distinguished Teachers” chosen by the Lindback Foundation in May of last year.
Some of Nicole's students have gone on go successful careers in the entertainment world. To mention just a few, one wound up on the TV show, “Broadway Empire,” another on the TV show “Law and Order, SVU,” and another became a professional opera singer.
Of course, since Nicole teaches the performing arts, her exams are performance-based, and the remote classes during the spring took a bit of getting used to. “We used 'Google Classrooms,' which is similar to Zoom, and they were nerve-wracking at first because we did not know what we were doing. After a while, though, we got the hang of it. Our classes were 45 minutes long, and they were fun.”
A native of Bucks County, Nicole, whose parents were not performers, attended Council Rock High School but could not afford private piano or voice lessons. She majored in music education — classical piano and voice — at Millersville College, southwest of Lancaster. She began teaching at age 22 but later went back to earn a master's degree in education from Gratz College. Her students can learn guitar and keyboard and take part in dance festivals and choral concerts in addition to the Broadway musicals.
“I still talk to some students I had 17 years ago,” said Nicole, “and I keep in touch with Kathy Caliguiri, a teacher I had at Richboro Jr. High School. She realized there was something in me that no one else saw, and that is the reason I became a teacher, to see something in a child that others do not see.”
Regarding the Lindback Foundation Award, Nicole was, of course, thrilled to get it. “It is great to be recognized at the district level for all the hard word you put in. It made me feel appreciated, but I could not do this all by myself. I get tremendous help from Kim Smith, a math teacher, and Amanda Johnson, an art teacher, and great support from our principal, Kate Davis, a Henry alumna herself, and Fatima Rogers, our previous principal, and from the rest of the staff and kids and parents.”
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com