President Obama stood in the Rose Garden on Monday, urging Congress to act quickly on his American Jobs Act.
Philadelphia music teacher Jason Chuong stood inches away. Michael Farrell, a laid-off Philadelphia School District teacher who’s now an apprentice assistant principal at Mastery Charter School-Harrity, was in the front row.
Chuong, who teaches instrumental music at seven separate Philadelphia public schools, was selected by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to travel to Washington, D.C. for Obama’s Rose Garden speech. Farrell was recommended by a former colleague who's now a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow.
Chuong ended up almost directly next to the president, flanked both by dignitaries and other ordinary men and woman the White House says will benefit from the legislation.
In its current form, the act would put teachers, police and firefighters who have lost jobs back to work.
Though the Philadelphia School District laid off about 2,700 employees in June, Chuong, a 24-year-old with three years’ experience, was spared. Farrell, who taught special education at Science Leadership Academy, lost his job.
Chuong he supports the legislation, especially because music and art are often on the chopping block when budgets are tight.
“An administrator should never have to think about whether they’re going to have to cut the art teacher or the music teacher or the Spanish teacher,” Chuong said. “I hope this Jobs Act would prevent a principal from having to make that decision.”
His Washington D.C. experience has been both exciting and surreal, Chuong said. On a typical Monday, he’s teaching classes at two Center City schools, Masterman and Franklin Learning Center; today, he was shaking Obama’s hand in the Roosevelt Room.
“The president introduced himself and thanked me for the work that I do with teaching, which was nice,” Chuong said. “I shook his hand and thanked him for being the president.”
Rubbing elbows with the leader of the free world was nice, but Chuong has important work to do. On Tuesday, he will be back in the classroom, teaching students at West Philadelphia High.
“We’re trying to create amazing, successful programs with shoestring budgets,” Chuong said. “Especially with music.”
Chuong, a Connecticut native who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of the Arts, is a drummer himself. He's started multiple bucket drum ensembles around the city.
What's a bucket drum ensemble? Picture the large plastic buckets you buy at Home Depot - orange? Metal and plastic handle? Turned upside down, they're drums.
Check out this YouTube video of a Chuong-led 2010 bucket drum ensemble performance at the J.S. Jenks School in Chestnut Hill.
Farrell, 26, is also in favor of the bill. He even got to ask Secretary of Education Arne Duncan questions about it during a roundtable at U.S. Department of Education headquarters.
“We want to make sure that money doesn’t get lost in translation, that we actually see it in schools,” said Farrell.
Farrell described the day as "very exciting" and after meeting Duncan, who sat next to him at the roundtable, Farrell had the same observations I did - first, Duncan is a good listener. Next, the Secretary of Education is seriously tall. (Figures - the guy plays basketball with Obama.)
"I kept thinking how long his legs were," Farrell said.