NEWTON, NJ—Students, alumnae, parents and even teachers, assembled at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, March 8 to voice their opinions about the structure of the music program in the Newton schools.

Ray Stocker, Kara Hartzell, and Steven O’Toole. What do these three names have in common? Each one is a band teacher within the Newton school district and each one’s current position in the district is up in the air.

The members of the Board of Education have discussed the possibility of switching around band teachers within the school district. Their plan, one that many students and parents voiced their thoughts against at the meeting, is to switch Hartzell and O’Toole, and then have Stocker become full-time at Merriam.

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The current positions of the teachers are as follows: O’Toole teaches at the high school, but does a few periods a day down at Halsted. Hartzell teaches at Halsted, and Stocker teaches at both Halsted and Merriam.

Over 50 students, alumnae, and parents spoke out about this during the public comment portion of the meeting and over 30 letters were sent to the board of education members and Principal Jeff Waldron about this topic in particular. Here are some of the students’ thoughts.

  • Jace Williams- “To think about Mr. O’Toole being taken away is truly horrifying… he is a father figure to a lot of us in the band and he always has his door open for us.”
  • Gwen Manley-Muller- “One day Mr. O’Toole told me ‘I originally wanted to become a guidance counselor, but I became a band director because I knew kids wouldn’t want to come down and talk with me’. People don’t want to have the stress of going to the guidance counselors, but his door is always open to us. Most people start off in band as a hobby, but so many others have commented to me that they now want to go to college and pursue music. I have personally improved as a band member, and we have improved as a band because of him and I cannot thank him enough for that.”
  • Jillian Bandel- “It’s not easy being a band kid, and quite honestly it wouldn’t feel as amazing to be a band kid without O’Toole. The band room is my savior and it is the one place in the whole school that I can be myself, and all my friends, I have made through band. O’Toole encourages us to try harder and learn tougher pieces. I started playing the saxophone in 8th grade, which is a really late time to start an instrument. Needless to say, I was not that good. But O’Toole sat me down and he said ‘Jillian, you can do it and I’m going to help you do it’. It just wouldn’t be the same if it had been someone else teaching me. Ms. Hartzell is a wonderful woman, but I have seen them teach side by side and there are so many differences. She is a very bubbly, energetic woman, and that energy really needs to go towards the younger student body to get them interested in the music and playing an instrument, whereas O’Toole really inspires you to go the extra mile, try harder, and to be better.”
  • Justin Rothstein- “When Mr. O’Toole arrived at the high school 14 years ago the band program was in shambles. Over the years he has taken an almost non-existent high school band program and turned it into an award winning group of musicians. He has inspired and encouraged countless students to pursue careers in music, I am included in that group. He has opened up a myriad of doors including an award winning jazz band, completely student run pit for musicals and marching band. Mr. O’Toole has helped me and many other students current and past, realize that music is our true passion… that to me is a sign of a true teacher. Someone who can so easily and naturally show someone what their true passion is in life and make them want to pursue it as a professional career.”
  • Sam Brothman- “Mr. O’Toole has been an excellent teacher to me and has grown my interest in music that extends to college, where I plan to pursue a minor in music…While I am sure the middle school teacher is a good teacher, she is not the same as Mr. O’Toole. He has inspired me throughout his excellent stories which end up turning into a music lesson and his confidence that I’ll hit that certain note at the right time, even when I don’t. What I’m trying to say is that the band program here at Newton High School is so much more than just music instruction.”
  • Sheridan Kapusciansi- “I know a lot of students who don’t really fit in so to say, and when I go in the band room I feel like I have a place to fit in. I’m comfortable there. I felt confident in saying I was a band kid. If you’re having a bad day, you can always go in to him and talk to him and he always knows the right thing to say, he’ll always keep you smiling.  He makes you come out of your shell and be yourself because he is such a unique person himself.”
  • Joe Malvey- “I have worked with a lot of band directors over the past four years and each director has a different teaching style and I think O’Toole really sticks out above everyone I have had. He is incredibly ambitious and I love how the music he chooses to teach is so challenging. He has a dedication to the students that I don’t see in a lot of other band directors.”
  • Andrew Jones- “I am completely baffled about how an idea like this can even be proposed. Mr. O’Toole is such an ambitious guy. He gets to the school at 6:30 every day. I have never met anyone else who is that motivated, He has been here for 14 years and before he came here there was nothing. He took nothing and turned it into this great thing. I tear up a little at the thought that future kids might not have the opportunity to have this amazing guy as a band director. I am really impressed by how much the student body has been active about this, there are students who have only been in band for eight or nine months and are ready to come here and protest this. Hatzell’s approach is very bubbly and that approach should be directed more toward the middle school age. O’Toole’s approach is for a more mature crowd where he needs to inspire and motivate students to possibly pursue college careers in music.” 
  • Kyra Grunwald- “I am actually a student in the choir program, but my relationship to O’Toole is through the marching band and the color guard. After a year I went to O’Toole and asked to be a part of the band, I expected him to put my on a base drum, he gave me a meerabai. He kept pushing me to try and every time I felt like I was off on the sidelines and I couldn’t do anything and quite frankly if it wasn’t for O’Toole, my first year of high school would not have been the same. In the choir, there are so many people that it feels impossible to find a group of friends, but in the band we are all unified, and we all come together and we are all as one,. It was really O’Toole who taught me to break out of my shell that I kept placing myself into. He wanted me to improve and go on trying. He understood that unlike everyone else here, I didn’t really have the experience with musical instruments, and he didn’t care, he just kept trying to help me and to feel that someone has that much confidence in you even though they barely knew you, it is inspiring.”
  • Joey Newman- “O’Toole really inspired me to work harder and I am one of those people who wants to pursue a career in music. I have worked with a lot of different people in music and none are as inspirational as O’Toole. If you have a teacher that inspires students to pursue a certain career, isn’t that the type of teacher that you want?”
  • Erica Ewing- “I’m not good at playing and I know that, but I formed a family with the band and I’m happy there. I had a hard time this year, but band made me feel a lot better and changed my view on school and although I am not going to be the best musician in the world, I do it because of Mr. O’Toole and without him it just would never be the same. He made me feel a lot less nervous and even if we mess up, he wouldn’t yell at you, but he’d make fun of you in an encouraging way that makes you want to try harder. I have only been here a few months, but the fact that I am so passionate about this and him, shows just how big of an impact Mr. O’Toole has here and on the students.”
  • Connor Krieg- “Mr. O’Toole does a summer program and I was able to be a part of that program last summer. He has inspired my brother to join the band when he comes up to the high school and I really want O’Toole to stay here so he gets the experience and can see how much he has done for me. He has inspired many of us and he has inspired me to look into joining the Navy band, but I wouldn’t have thought about it if it wasn’t for Mr. O’Toole.” 
  • Caleb Macgray- “I stand here today only as an example, a tiny piece of a legacy that Mr. O’Toole leaves. You may not think my opinion valid because I do not actually attend Newton High School, I attend Sussex County Technical School. We don’t have a music program there… but after talking a bit with Mr. O’Toole and expressed my disappointment in not being able to play any instruments in a high school band, he sympathized with me and went out of his way to appeal to this school and my school and I was able to play in pit band, jazz band, and marching band. I begin most of my days during the week at Newton High School at 6:30 a.m. for marching band and then go over to the Sussex Technical School for the rest of my school day. I am a junior and have been in marching band for three years and next year I am supposed to be one of the drum majors and I really hope I can be. I am just an example of how much Mr. O’Toole cares and if he cares that much about some kid that doesn’t even go to this school, imagine how much he cares about all those students he encounters every day at Newton High School.”
  • Rose DeRyder- “Mr. O’Toole has had many achievements in his time here and as many have said, one is that he has helped the band program grow. My question is: why would one attempt to save a band program that obviously doesn’t need saving, at the sake of the students?”
  • Tristan Dunn- “He has inspired me so much… he has shown that he has determination, motivation, inspiration and before I thought people were successful because they were perfect, but he has told me that there is no such thing as perfection, and he was correct. No one can really be prefect, and if everyone was perfect then he wouldn’t have a job. I have had many teachers and he has shown me just how different he is. I took band as just a class when I first started at the high school, but now band has become so much more for me and he has shown me how much music has meaning.” 
  • Vincent Paternoster- “Being both a student of Mr. O’Toole’s and Ms. Hartzell’s in the past, this change will not end with the best result as you guys are seeing. When I came into Halsted’s music program I could not read sheet music at all."
  • Mike Woodrow- “I went into band not knowing anything, not even how to blow air into the instrument, it was awful, but the community Mr. O’Toole has created in there is remarkable, and people who have been playing eight or nine years just see me as another band person. I remember the first song I ever played notes on, I couldn’t play the right notes, but Mr. O’Toole was never discouraged by that, he never put me down because of that, he would always try to lift me up and use it as a learning experience. That is really important during high school and the environment he created, like everyone else said, is like a home, a place students can go and feel safe and talk about their problems and in high school that is something that is important.”
  • Emily Brothman- “I am an eighth grader at Long Pond School and I met him at the tri-district concert. A lot of the eighth graders are considering their classes now for next year looking to take band with Mr. O’Toole. I really think a bunch of eighth graders might drop band if you don’t reconsider this decision.”

While only 18 students spoke to the board about their opinions in the decision to switch the band teachers around, there were many more in attendance. Parents and alumnae had similar things to say such as:

  • Diane O’Brien- “Like so many parents, were surprised and upset by the announcement… his band program is unparalleled to any other…he has an ability to relate to high school students and bring out their confidence in themselves. Why should the students at Halsted benefit from Mr. O’Toole’s teaching and not those from Green and Andover?”
  • Mary Smith- “Why change something that is so good”
  • Kyla Izquierdo- alumnae “I think the program that did the most for me when I was here was the band program. Without that, without Mr. O’Toole constantly telling us to be confident and ensuring us that we were in a safe environment with him and to come out of our shells and really become the person that we are meant to be, that inspired me more than anything to be involved and strive for many other things.”  
  • Garret Lonzello- alumnae “Steven O’Toole is one of the top five most influential people in my life.”   
  • Eric Dawson- alumnae “I have seen a lot of different music teachers at the college I work at with tremendous fire, vigor and dedication and that is the same vigor that Steven O’Toole has… He far exceeds all that is expected of him. I invite everyone here to consider the potential that around 60 students have been inspired to become music majors because of Mr. O’Toole…if you value a commitment to excellence, if you value excellence within Newton High School, then I hope you will reconsider keeping Steven O’Toole as a teacher at the high school.”
  • Ken Malvey- “He can take fabulous musicians that are already talented, but to take kids who don’t have any musical talent, that challenge is what makes the way he works with them so amazing”
  • Brianne Paternostar- “The students want to be like Mr. O’Toole, that is why they want to continue with music in the future, to be like him”
  • Beth Brothman- “He has a unique ability to connect with the students in a way that many other teachers don’t… he inspires.”
  • Robin Izquierdo- “I teach your graduates at SCCC and I see students who have confidence in themselves and have respect for the teachers. When every graduation occurs at the high school, Mr. O’Toole will stand whenever a name is read for someone who was/is a band student and that sign of respect that he has for his students is shown through that and that helps his students to then have respect for him and other teachers as well.”
  • Lauren Robinson-alumnae “Before every audition that I had, Mr. O’Toole would leave his post as a judge and would check on me to make sure that I was ok and no matter what my score was he would always tell me that I was still a great French horn player and that confidence that he had in me, gave me the confidence I needed in myself. One quote that he used to say to me when I told him I wanted to be a music educator was ‘It isn’t easy and he would lie awake at night and wonder what he could do the next day to improve the students’ lives and make the band program better.”
  • Leslie MacGray-“I have heard many comments about Mr. O’Toole, some being that he is very influential at critical times in a students’ life and the way he is able to break down barriers in his room helps the students. Mr. O’Toole’s style is one that is direct, filled with a sophisticated humor that high school students appreciate and respond to. His style is filled with love, appreciation and respect that allows him to get the most out of each student. Why would you take something that works and produces a quality human being, student, musician and program, and change it? Mr. O’Toole has a unique balance of knowing how to meet high school students at their level and to challenge them to get better, he commands respect from them because of the respect he has for them, he knows when to play with them and when to push them. Could someone else successfully take his place? Perhaps. Could it also be that Newton High School could lose one of its greatest assets? Perhaps. The question I would like you to consider, is perhaps, good enough for you? Because just for the record, it’s not good enough for us.”
  • Doug Grunwald-“How do you teach dedication? O’Toole gives that to the kids, he is teaching them passion and dedication”
  • Sharon Grunwald- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  
  • Lisa Williams- “No one can choose who inspires the students, only the student does”

Superintendent Dr. Ken Greene closed out the public comment portion with a short thank you to those who came out to speak on behalf of O’Toole.

“I think it is fair to say that as a board of education, we rarely receive the kind of education that we did tonight, so I wanted to thank you all. I can’t say enough, on behalf of all the board, how proud we are of all the students that came out tonight… it is refreshing to see this community and to see that things are working.”

Dr Green said if any changes were to happen, nothing would occur until late spring time, around May. For now, all band teachers will continue in their current positions and O’Toole will continue teaching students in his own unique way.