The Case of the Truant Prodigy and the Incompetent School System

Avery Gagliano is a 13-year-old student in the District of Columbia school system, and an acknowledged musical prodigy. She has won competitions and soloed with orchestras nationwide.She was one of 12 musicians selected from around the world to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year. All of this periodically disrupts her school attendance, and because the District continues to threaten treating her as a truant, Avery’s parents say they have been forced to pull her out of her classes, where she was a happy A student.

“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. This a classic example of how bureaucratic rigidity, in the absence of employees or officials willing to take initiative and address a non-conforming anomaly, will lead to needless harm and absurd results. Nobody would, or if they did, they did so in such a dysfunctional system that it didn’t make any difference.A Washington Post columnist embarrassed the school by relating the tale, which had an additional kicker of suggesting that the school system couldn’t rap its mind around a legitimate exception for playing piano with a world-class philharmonic orchestra while other students were being punished and their parents prosecuted for their kids skipping school to hang out and smoke weed. Is this special rules for the privileged? Would activists complain about disparate treatment because of class? Why should a middle class Eurasian girl get a pass, just because she misses class to get once-in-a-lifetime experiences relevant to her planned career in music, as opposed to a poor African-American boy, skipping school to get a head start on a life of crime?

The school system defended itself, arguing that it had given verbal permission to the parents, and told them to just ignore the threatening letters and e-mails. An official press release stated:

“It seems that in this matter, while DCPS was working with the family to excuse the student’s absences, the automatic letter that is generated when a student reaches ten unexcused absences was sent.  After a conversation with the Office of Youth Engagement, the family was told to disregard the letter.  We also confirmed by phone for the parents that no CFSA referral had been completed, nor would this escalate any further.  We believed our communication with the family as recently as August 25 clarified that Avery’s absences had been excused.  We were surprised to learn that this is the reason why Avery was voluntarily withdrawn from her school. We sincerely apologize for any confusion that the cross-communication might have conveyed.”

This sounds sort of reasonable ( don’t you love it when, say, the IRS orally tells you to ignore a letter threatening you, or your mortgage company says they aren’t really going foreclose like they just said they would by mail?), but it appears to be half-truths and spin. The columnist, Petula Dvorak, returned to the controversy and wrote,

“Avery’s mom, Ying Lam, stands by her account. And I stand by mine.Lam said her decision to withdraw her daughter came after the administration told her in emails that her absences would be marked unexcused, though she was also told in subsequent conversations “don’t worry about it.” Lam shared the emails with me.

After Avery missed more than 10 days of school because of a music program in Munich and a competition in Hartford, the family got repeated phone calls from the school’s truancy office. Lam said they were never told the absences would be excused, and, as far as she knows, they weren’t excused.

During summer vacation, the family received yet another letter informing them that her daughter was truant, along with a helpful brochure that outlines the possible police and Child and Family Services intervention for students who are truant.”

I think that would do it for me; how about you? The school is telling you orally “Don’t worry about it,” but you keep getting not just one letter saying your daughter is a truant, but a barrage of communications suggesting that, over weeks and months. “Trust us!”, the school administrators say. Trust us, and risk your daughter’s school record, though we are demonstrating that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing by having to tell you to trust us. No trustworthy institution requires this kind of irrational trust…yes, the U.S. government does, but I said trustworthy.

On top of this, the school system lied in its statement. There wasn’t just one “computer generated letter,” but many.The family says it was told to disregard the truancy letters they received at the end of the school year, but then received even more over the summer. So the family was expected to believe that they were never in danger of prosecution while calls and official letters they kept receiving  threatened otherwise.

The school system proved itself incompetent, inept, lazy, dishonest, unaccountable and foolish. Truancy threat or not, Avery Gagliano is better off getting her schooling anywhere else.

Need  more proof?

Read this.


Facts: Washington Post 1, 2



10 thoughts on “The Case of the Truant Prodigy and the Incompetent School System

  1. From “Searching for Bobby Fischer” when the father confronts his son’s teacher, who had a similar inability to appreciate genius when it stood before her:

    “He’s better at this than I’ve ever been at anything in my life. He’s better at this than you’ll ever be, at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.”

  2. “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.,”

    It’s truly amazing how great technology is getting these days. We can now automatically send e-mails with details personalized to your situation!

  3. DCPS ought to be ashamed of themselves. I have friends who adamantly defend the public school system in this country. I respectfully disagree with them and change the subject.

    I see home-schooling in this wonderful child’s future.

  4. The best reason for pulling her out of the DCPS is that if the system’s administrators lack critical thinking skills then it is reasonable to assume they are unprepared to teach those skills.

  5. “We live in a crowded world which is offen­ded by tal­ent, ter­ri­fied by genius.” –Mark Simpson, originator of the term “metrosexual”

    Of course, politicians who shriek loudest about the “evils” of school choice (including America’s Dear Leader) tend not to have their children in actual public schools. Hopefully, the young woman can find a school environment that cherishes her ability.

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