Proviso East High School marching band. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The Change.org petition hit Facebook with a bang when it was posted by a community member last week.

“Keep Band in Proviso East High School,” the title read. The petition, started by Forest Park band parent Jennifer Barbahen, said that “it has come to our attention that marching band class is being cut from the Proviso East curriculum for the 2021-2022 school year.

“Our understanding is that there will be no band class offered during the school day as a course and that early marching band practices will be discontinued,” the petition added. “As a result, students will not receive course credit for the work completed in band this school year.”

Within four days, the petition had been signed by 1,956 people, including Reginald Wright, the legendary former Proviso East band director who retired in 2015. In his comments, Wright pleaded for the district to keep the Early Bird Marching Band class.

It turns out that marching band classes will still be offered to students for credit at Proviso East and across District 209, but the Early Bird course, which meets an hour before school starts so that band members can sharpen their skills, will not be offered due to low enrollment, said D209 Board President Rodney Alexander on Aug. 3.

Barbahen said she started the petition on Friday after learning earlier in the week that the marching band would potentially be axed as a for-credit option at East based on a survey conducted in December 2020, “in which only four students responded that they wanted to participate in the class.”

Barbahen, who said her child would have participated in Early Bird if it were still being offered, said the survey isn’t “representative of actual student interest or academic need.”

By Saturday, however, Cletis D. Seals Jr., the Proviso East Band director, clarified in a Facebook post that the band program at East is “not, nor are there plans for it to be shut down. Previous information has suggested that the Marching band CLASS would have an enrollment of students too low to offer the class. In a conversation today, I was assured that students participating in the Proviso East Marching Band will receive credit.”

Seals nonetheless added that “we will still need your support. As you share that the band program is not shut down, please also share that we are constantly accepting new Proviso East AND PMSA students, with or without experience. Having not had the recruitment time that we typically do when in person, I ask that you send encouragement to Proviso area students to give band a try.”

According to D209 enrollment data, total student participation in band at both East and West (Proviso Math and Science Academy students participate in either of those bands) dropped from 182 in the 2021 school year to 99 in the 2022 school year.

Since at least 2018, the earliest year included in the district’s enrollment data, West has had significantly higher band enrollment than East.

Alexander acknowledged the 2020 survey Barbahen referenced, but said he can’t speak to the results and that the survey “has no bearing on the classes, because the classes are still offered.”

Alexander said there was never any intention on the part of the district to cut marching band as a credit offering, adding that such curriculum changes don’t happen on a dime and without board approval.

He also lambasted Barbahen’s petition as “misinformation” and a waste of his time. He said if Barbahen and other parents and community members wanted to know more information about the band’s status, they could have called him on his cell.

“I’m available,” he said. “I’m available.”

But Barbahen said, while she has Alexander’s cell number, she prefers to reach out to him and other board members and administrators by email.

“I’m not comfortable having a private conversation, when I think this should be addressed publicly and the way he’s behaved in board meetings and on social media is not professional,” she said. “I won’t subject myself to a private conversation with him. I think this should be aired in public, not subject to he say, she say.

“You can’t blatantly say this is incorrect or fake news, but not provide any information about why,” Barbahen said, referencing some of Alexander’s Facebook comments about the petition.

Barbahen said she emailed all of the D209 board members, D209 Supt. James Henderson and four other administrators, but only got a response from D209 board member Amanda Grant. She said that Grant told her on Monday she would look into the matter.

Barbahen said she’s since updated her petition to include Seals’ clarification, but she’s still concerned about what she said is the lack of transparency and communication in the district.

“Parents are concerned about the lack of transparency,” she said. “We’d like to email, because there is a public record of our conversation and not just a phone call. Comments should be out in the public for all to see.”

In response, Alexander defended some of his Facebook comments and his general response to the petition.

“I didn’t say anything on Facebook, but the facts,” he said. “She told a story. Her [petition] is based untruths. You come down the street raggedy, I’m going to correct you. I did not curse. I did not call anyone out of their name. I made factual statements. That’s in response to your untrue petitions and putting out false information and she has a problem with me? She doesn’t even know me.”

Barbahen said the situation with the band speaks to other issues within the district.

“Other teachers reached out to me after the petition posted thanking me and sharing concerns that they cannot advocate for their students and are afraid of retaliation from administration,” she said.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com