Tread Lightly

In the spring of 1993, I received a letter that changed my life.

I’d been accepted into the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts – a 5-week summer program for the visual and performing arts.  Over 2,000 high school sophomores and juniors applied, and 200 were selected after portfolio reviews, interviews, and onsite auditions.

For all 200 students who received that letter, the summer was on full-scholarship.  It had been that way since the program began in 1973, and would continue until it was eliminated by the state department of education after summer 2008.

Here's the proof. Oof.

Here’s the proof. Oof.

My high school art teacher was shocked.  He was – still is – one of the best in his field, a man with artistic talent and teacher-smarts far off the charts of the small, rural town where I grew up.  Only a scant couple of his students previously had been accepted to PGSA, and all of them had portfolios that outshone mine by a mile.  He was – still is – classy enough to disguise his astonishment.  But this small-town, blue-collar girl knew the acceptance letter was against the odds.

Who knows how or why I was accepted?  The point is that I was accepted, and that this program opened doors that would eventually lead to me pursuing a degree and a life in arts education.  For five weeks, I was surrounded with every possibility and the encouragement to pursue it all.  PGSA classmates of mine would go on to write novels, dance on global stages, get Tony nominations, and design buildings.  Some of them, like me, ended up working in education.  Some of us spent our summers back at the program – eleven summers in this case – working and living in community to support the future of the arts.

For me, the summer of 2008 was a highlight.  I didn’t work at PGSA that summer, but for the first time, one of my students attended. He calls the experience transformative, and so it was. He is finishing up his degree in Crafts and Material Science this spring.

Since the Governor’s Schools were slashed in 2009, I’ve watched and listened to advocacy for the programs to come back.  For awhile, I was in the thick of it, marching into offices in Harrisburg and handing out carefully edited books that proclaimed the programs’ worth in participant and alumni voices.  No one paid much attention to those books.  We did not have lobbyists helping us, and we did not have industry or organized alumni support.

It takes a village, and, as of yet, the Arts program is still trying to assemble that village.

The Governor’s School programs that have revived since the de-funding have done so with various models.  I’ve watched the Sciences program with deep admiration, as they have rallied alumni support to fully fund the school and continue to offer the program to Pennsylvania students on full scholarship.  If the Arts program is ever restored, I hope it happens with this sort of village supporting and celebrating it.

Recently, through a student at my school, I was introduced to another mode of Governor’s School revival that left me less enthusiastic.  This student has been accepted to a program that calls itself a “former Pennsylvania Governor’s School,” with a stated purpose in entrepreneurship and leadership. Their applicant pool for less than 100 spots is global and national – no longer limited to students from our state.  What an honor for this sophomore to be accepted.  I was thrilled for him, until he presented the problem: a tuition cost of over $3400.

Granted, in the spectrum of high school summer programs, this cost is middle of the road.  For what these students will learn – which sounds amazing – it is probably worth every cent.  For some families, including some (but not all) of students I teach, this tuition represents little or no sacrifice.  Good for them.

Financial aid forms are linked to the program’s website.   These forms that ask questions about food stamps, migrant or homeless status, and federal gross income – apparently for families on the polar opposite of the financial spectrum.  I hope that these financial aid opportunities make it possible for some students who otherwise would have no access to attend.

For those of us in the middle, there’s a link to a very outdated site on ‘fundraising tips’ that makes me grit my teeth. I imagine a boardroom conversation with fists pounding tables and exclamations that students who are entrepreneurial enough will make the expense work, as long as they click on the bright green webpage and do what it says.

My problem with this system is personal.  If I had gotten an acceptance letter in 1993 with this tuition cost – adjusted for inflation – there would have been no way that I could have attended PGSA.  I am waving my hand in the air on behalf of the middle class, who are getting squeezed out of opportunity.  I try to imagine myself as a parent, telling a very bright son who had been accepted to a terrific opportunity against the odds, that I could not swing the cost – nor were we eligible for the financial packages.  It hurts.  I was in the middle in 1993, I’m still in the middle now, and I’m angry on behalf of those who are here with me.

To be gifted and hungry to learn should not mean extreme family sacrifice or impossible opportunities.  I want this sort of student to encounter the opposite: support and open doors.  As I did, at age 15.

Although programming for gifted students is mandated in the state of Pennsylvania, the dollars allocated for gifted and talented programming in the state budget totals $0.  It used to be that the Governor’s Schools helped to fill this gap, especially for those in the middle.  The merit-based scholarship was an investment in the future of some of our state’s best and most motivated. It came with the charge to pay-it-forward.  We challenged our govies to go back to their communities and lead good things, and they did – not because they had any mandate to do so, but because they were grateful and inspired. The program was a kickstarter towards a life of generosity and good citizenship.

This reinvented program to which my student was accepted is asking for upfront selective merit, upfront financial sacrifice, and the mandate to apply lessons in entrepreneurship post-program. I’m pounding my own fist now, and saying enough is enough.

Scale this argument up, and I’m challenging college loans, the home I can’t buy, the retirement that seems completely out of reach. Scale this argument down – or, maybe laterally – and I am actually relieved that the Arts program has not gone full-tilt into a revival before the hard questions of access, funding, and stability have been tackled.  Although I want PGSA to come back with all of my heart and educational philosophy, I don’t want to claim myself as an alumnus of a program that excludes anyone because of ability to pay.  I’d be sickened by a PGSA that began with class – some families paying full tuition, some students believing they were there on charity – and ended with having to prove it was worth the sticker price.

When the Governors Schools were eliminated, the total cost of eight programs, seating over 750 students each summer, was $3.2 million a year.  .004% of the state’s budget.  Funny.  That’s what the Sandusky trials cost Penn State.  What is really worth our investment?

And so, I’m breaking my silence on the Governor’s School issue to say that it’s okay by me that the Arts program remains in hibernation, until we make sure that we have its reinvention right. The Arts have too many important lessons to teach for us to sidetrack young people with issues of economic class and comparing federal gross income.  Equal access, equal opportunity, and full tuition – or tread lightly and keep building until we have it.

Seems to me it’s a matter of justice.

In the meantime, I’ll keep teaching Pennsylvania students with every ounce of the passion I learned at PGSA, to keep some semblance of the fire burning.


What it was like: (Via Nathan Kuruna)

The Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts – rough/director’s cut – PGSAexport(first?)1.23.04(35m) from Nathan Kuruna on Vimeo.


4 thoughts on “Tread Lightly

  1. it seems like the model of funding / tuition for Governor’s school today – and the model that was present in 1993 when you attended, and in 1998 when i attended – is the very essence of what’s wrong today with income inequality, class and (lack of) opportunity for those who cannot pony up. sigh.

    i wonder what those legislators would say if i stood before them and told them that without PGSA, there would not be a Bethany Rusen existing in 2014. that program literally saved my life.

    • Wait – you think it was wrong in ’93 and ’98? I disagree. The application/selection model needs some significant modification (reinvention) now, in order to equalize access to opportunity for students from rural and urban schools that no longer have substantial arts education. But I stand by the necessity for these programs to be highly selective but free.

      I’d stand right beside you.

  2. This was a fine, spirited defense of a program that benefited many, harmed none, and operated for a very small state subsidy. One small correction, the Sandusky trials were much, much more costly for Penn State. We have been soaked for amounts approaching $100 million….and more to come….probably as much as the entire history of the PGSA budget…..from Steven Smith, professor of piano at PSU

    • Wow. Thanks for sharing this. Going to search for links to support it that I can share in the article. Got any?

      And thank you for the support, too.

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