Upper Darby’s Magical GALA!!!

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times  

Monday, January 25, 2021

By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist

During the 1990’s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began to underfund its fair share of public education as required by its own State Constitution.

A 2020 analysis by Spotlight, an independent non-partisan newsroom, has revealed that over more than two decades Pennsylvania’s public-school children have been shortchanged by $4.6 billion — and those in the poorest school districts have fallen the furthest behind. According to this study, public schools in Philadelphia, Reading, and Upper Darby are among those most significantly shortchanged by at least $5,000 per student. 

These examples are representative of Pennsylvania government’s staggering and continuing abdication of its responsibility to fair and equitable education funding. As a result, cutbacks and reductions of school programs and staff in many schools across Pennsylvania have abounded.

In 1998 in response to the decline of State funding, as Upper Darby Superintendent of Schools, I inspired and led the formation of the Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation (UDAEF), a coalition of community and school people hoping to raise funds for educational purposes that could not otherwise be afforded.

Subsequently, at a lunch with all the school system’s system music teachers, I explained that the school district now had a foundation… but I wondered aloud “now what?”  One of the teachers, reminiscent of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie, jumped up and exclaimed “we’ll have a show!”

And we did!!!!

For the past 22 years, this “show,” entitled the GALA, has been magical and stupendous! And there is nothing like it, nothing that comes even close to it, in any school district anywhere.

The great Broadway musical, Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner contains these words in one of its songs: Dont let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”  

Indeed, this GALA has been Upper Darby’s Camelot!

Sponsored by the Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation (UDAEF), the GALA has annually featured high-quality performances by many hundreds of Upper Darby School District students of all ages. It has played to sold-out audiences and numerous standing ovations in the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center every year since 1998. These student performances have been wonderful artistic and classic demonstrations of group and individual mastery of music.

Added to that, here is the bottom lineThe proceeds from these GALA events over the past 22 years have provided more than $2 million distributed by the UDAEF via 900+ mini grants for educational enrichment and enhancement projects which would never have occurred. 

The first GALA, Celebrate the Children in 1998, was emceed by Gene Hart, then the voice of the Philadelphia Flyers, and set the tone!  It featured a One Man Band (the amazing Brad Schoener) and three members of the Philadelphia Orchestra before a delighted sellout audience. It was a sign of things to come.

Spectacular performances have since occurred every year and included Upper Darby High School’s award-winning 200+ voice choir and its immensely talented wind and jazz ensembles.  There have also been huge middle school choirs and bands, elementary choirs and bands, kindergarten singers, combined string orchestras, and numerous other groups and magnificent soloists, including Upper Darby High graduates and teachers. And the finale has always featured 800+ students on stage.

Each GALA has been a stunning tribute to music education at its very best…discipline, precision and artistic prowess on display by large student vocal and instrumental groups and soloists …complex and difficult musical pieces…massive movements of large numbers of students on and off stage handled masterfully resulting in great happiness and pride among young and old …educational excellence at the pinnacle.

Thanks in large part to the GALA, UDAEF now supports more than 40 programs across four key areas of education: The Arts, Literacy, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and Health and Wellness which has impacted 16,000 students annually. These programs are designed to improve and enhance the quality of educational and cultural offerings for the students and the broader community of the Upper Darby School District.

So now the question is: Given the ongoing pandemic, will there be a UDAEF sponsored GALA in 2021? And the answer must be: Why not?!

A new GALA can certainly happen “virtually” in 2021 with many thousands of viewers watching and enjoying the performances safely from their homes!!!

Of course, this 2021 GALA should have the “safest” possible format and most creative design (how about a two-decade nostalgic look back at the best student performances via videos??!!).  But, whatever the case, this event must happen!  The GALA has been and must continue to be a critical blood line for Upper Darby. 

Wynton Marsalis, the internationally acclaimed musician, composer and bandleader, and educator has emphasized that when you have captured something good, it should go on and on; his words:  Without continuity in music programs, public education loses its soul….and threatens community culture with dying from the inside.

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Joseph Batory was honored/recognized as the “Father and Founder” of the Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation on its 20th anniversary in 1998.

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