AGAWAM — School Superintendent Sheila Hoffman recently shared her perspective on the high school band’s decision to skip the annual Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade. It wasn’t the same as the disappointment expressed by at least one School Committee member.

Hoffman addressed the issue for the first time at the March 26 School Committee meeting as part of her “Superintendent’s Notes” report. She said she understands the importance of the AHS marching band participating in local traditions, such as the parade in Holyoke, where Agawam has its own division with its own parade marshal and other award winners, a colleen and court, town elected officials, public safety departments and more.

She said that since there’s been much “feedback and discussion” about the absence of the band at this year’s parade, she wanted to provide the school community with “some factual details” related to the decision so they can “form opinions based on facts.”

Hoffman said the St. Patrick’s Parade is “a valued event” that brings the community together and “showcases the talents” of band students. However, she said that about a year ago, the high school’s music department and administration realized that the “weight of the obligations” for band students was preventing some of them from accessing the “ensemble experience” — pushing some students out of the music program entirely.

The superintendent said this led school officials to develop a survey for students. In spring 2023, both marching band and regular band class students completed the survey.

“Above all, the goal of the survey was to get student feedback on the yearly performance calendar to support the music department with setting the performances for the upcoming year,” said Hoffman.

Along with “several negative individual student comments,” Hoffman said the survey data showed that the St. Patrick’s Parade was “the least favorite performing experience” for students collectively.

“These concerns were brought to AHS administration’s attention and class discussions were conducted on the pros and cons of this learning experience/opportunity for students,” she said.

According to Hoffman, Friends of Agawam Music Education also was included in the discussion on the March 17 parade as a part of its open general meeting on Feb. 12 of this year. FAME, a booster organization, was formerly known as the Agawam Band Parents Association.

“After careful consideration of the impact on all stakeholders and with the full support from the AHS administration and FAME, the decision to not march was made. This decision was not made lightly,” said the superintendent.

Hoffman said the marching band has an “active calendar” that includes a summer band camp, performing at home football games, marching in the Salute to Agawam parade at the Big E, UMass Band Day, high school graduation ceremonies, the Thanksgiving football pep rally and Agawam’s Memorial Day Parade. The band program also includes numerous concerts and music festivals throughout the year.

“All of these commitments are essential to the educational and extracurricular development of our students. Balancing these responsibilities while ensuring the well-being of our students continues to be one of our top priorities,” said Hoffman. “Our marching band members are committed individuals that do not deserve negative comments directed to them because of this adult decision.” 

Hoffman said she continues to be “energized” by the ongoing spirit and sense of pride” that the Agawam community expresses toward its high school students.

“A focus at the high school is incorporating student input in everything we do, as we encourage our students to think critically and share their opinions on topics that matter to them,” she said.

The superintendent ended her remarks by saying she hoped the Agawam school community would understand, thanking them for their “continued support for our students’ success in all their endeavors.”

Two committee members, Shelley Borgatti-Reed and Wendy Rua, shared their thoughts on the band’s non-appearance at the parade.

Borgatti-Reed, who marched in the parade, said she heard comments about absent band members: “Many, many comments and a few emails. I was a little embarrassed that the band wasn’t there.” She said she hopes the committee can have further discussions so “we can agree on ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Rua thanked individuals who spoke up about their concerns regarding the AHS music department.

“I personally received many phone calls, a few emails and had many people ask to speak with me in person,” she said.

She said there are “several layers of issues” raised by the decision and that discussions are still happening among students. Rua said she’s proud of students who raised their concerns.

“You should always feel your opinions are valued and your safety is at the forefront of our minds in our decisions,” she said.

But Rua said the administration also has a job to do.

“After those concerns were raised, I hoped they would consider them and I strongly encourage them [the school administration] to do so as they think about ways to address those concerns in the future,” Rua said. “The band may be student-driven, but it’s not student-directed.”

She said “large and meaningful decisions” should come from the leadership, adding that some students who shared their opinions were “shamed publicly” for not marching.

“I’m sorry, that should never happen,” she said.