Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.
The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.
But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents’ begging and pleading for an exception.
“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.
Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.
Avery’s parents say they did everything they could to persuade the school system. They created a portfolio of her musical achievements and academic record and drafted an independent study plan for the days she’d miss while touring the world as one of the star pianists selected by a prestigious Lang Lang Music Foundation, run by Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who handpicked Avery to be an international music ambassador.
But the school officials wouldn’t budge, even though the truancy law gives them the option to decide what an unexcused absence is. The law states that an excused absence can be “an emergency or other circumstances approved by an educational institution.”
Too bad, so sad. After 10 unexcused absences, it doesn’t matter whether a child was playing hooky to hang at the mall or charming audiences in Hong Kong with her mastery of Mozart. D.C. bureaucrats will label the kid a truant, will mar her transcript with that assessment and will assign a truancy officer to the case.
When Avery returned in March from winning the Grand Prix at a big competition in Hartford, Conn., for her performance of a Chopin Waltz, she didn’t get calls of congratulations from her school. That was her 10th absence, so a truancy officer was called.
Deciding that a truancy prosecution over piano competitions was ridiculous, Avery’s parents withdrew her from Deal. And this year, instead of touring the world as a first-class representative of D.C. public schools’ finest, she is going as a home-schooler. And no one is happy about it.
“We decided to home-school her because of all the issues, because it was like a punch in the gut to have to face the fight again this year,” said Gagliano, who works at Hertz Car Rental. “We didn’t want to do this. We want to be part of the public school system. Avery has been in public school since kindergarten. She’s a great success story for the schools.”
Avery misses her friends. When school started Aug. 25, she wanted to be there, catching up with them and wearing her cute, new school clothes and meeting her teachers.
Instead, she’s at home doing schoolwork at the kitchen table, miserable that her achievements in piano have led to this isolation.
So send her to private school, you say? Olympic gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky, 17, doesn’t get any blowback from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda when she misses classes to smash some more world records. Instead, school officials have a page on the Stone Ridge Web site bragging about her achievements.
Unfortunately, Avery’s parents can’t afford private school tuition. So essentially, DCPS is making sure that Avery’s continued trajectory as an international piano prodigy has a price tag on it.
It’s true that D.C. has a huge truancy problem. Last year, nearly a third of all students missed more than 10 days of school. So that’s about 15,000 kids who are doing who knows what instead of being in a classroom.
It would be immoral to enforce a truancy rule for some, but not others, right? But wait, what about Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old who had been living in D.C.’s family homeless shelter and missed nearly 30 days of school before anyone reported her missing?
Aren’t we supposed to be tightening up on truancy enforcement to ensure that cases like that don’t happen?
Of course. But the fact is, truancy rules in the District are selectively enforced, depending on your Zip code.
The 8-year-old living in a homeless shelter and attending a school overwhelmed with transient children — where truancy can be a sign of something dangerous — racks up 30 absences before someone has the time to notice.
But over in the Other City, where some D.C. public schools are as fancy as their neighborhood, the little concert pianist is collared and the truancy police are on high alert.
School officials who are deciding to enforce the policy for some and not others, who refuse to take a holistic look at the child and her life in and outside school — whether it be at international concerts or in homeless shelters — should be held accountable for their short-sighted decision-making.
And seriously, from a PR perspective, how could the embattled school system pass up a chance to brag about Avery’s success as a lifelong public school student?
I guess common sense isn’t on the curriculum this year.