Superintendent's Weekly News Brief

For the week ending November 4th, 2022

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Band Director John Blickwedehl: Marching Toward Success

The West Seneca Schools are dedicated to drawing-out and nurturing young talent. In the case of the West Seneca Marching Band, this pertains not only to our vastly talented student musicians, but to their teacher as well.

Marching Band Director John Blickwedehl graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on a Sunday in 2001, returned to Orchard Park the following Monday, interviewed with the West Seneca Schools on Wednesday, and was asked to take the job on Friday. Not a bad week for a recent graduate. As it turns out 21 years later, it was a highly fortuitous hire for the District.

Competitively, the West Seneca Marching Band – made up of East and West Senior High and Middle students - won 6 state championships in the Large School 3 class between 2009- 2016. Hence, they moved up to Large School 2 in 2017. “We consistently placed 6th or 7th in our first few years,” Blickwedehl says. “We went up to 2nd in 2021, and we’ve had our best ever competition scores these past two years,” he says.

He attributes a lot of the WSMB’s success in recent years to his current band members being part of a 7-year progression, an advantage that was borne as the result of a deficit.

“In the 2015 -16 school year, “ Blickwedehl explains, “budget cuts cost us 2 music teachers in the district. Fellow band teacher, Meaghen Venitelli, and I stepped in to teach band to the middle school students. We both stretched and met in the middle.” Many of the innovations the two made are still in place, such as the Wind Symphony they formed. More importantly, today’s junior and senior band members have been with Mr. Blickwedehl since 6th grade – long enough to know, trust, and work hard for him and their fellow bandmates.

The engineer’s son sums it up as a simple equation. “Students learn to be good students, and band is a place where your success is everyone’s success,” he says. “Whatever you want your band to be, you must be.”

Still, Blickwedehl admits that the early days were tough, and there were difficulties for the Marching Band. The idealistic new teacher walked into a position in which the music and visual design were picked and ready for the fall. Some new teachers may have been happy to find a path laid before them. Blickwedehl, however, had been hand-picked his freshman year of college to help out Clearview High School teacher David Eddleman with his marching band students. Eddleman, spotting Blickwedehl’s drum and bugle corps jacket, had a hunch this young man had some talent, and he was right. That working relationship went on for all four years of college, during which Blickwedehl earned his band director stripes. The experience was invaluable.

As West Seneca’s brand-new band director, Blickwedehl started his teaching career with someone else’s plan. “Those students worked really hard,” he says. “I knew we needed to do something different for next year – development over performance prep.” His formula worked when the next year, the band’s score on week one was higher than the last show of the year before. Typically, a band’s competition scores show incremental growth over the school year, and the WSMB was on an upward trajectory that has never stopped in Blickwedehl’s 22 years with the District.

It is no wonder that in the spring of 2022, the West Seneca Music Department marked the 6th consecutive year, and the 9th time in recent years in which we received the “Best Communities for Music Education” award from the NAMM Foundation. The award program recognizes outstanding efforts by teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders who have made music education part of a well-rounded education. That is an apt description of WSCSD’s music programs.

Much like his clutch decision to take the West Seneca job, this graduate of nearby Orchard Park, who majored in graphic arts in high school, did an about-face his senior year of high school, switching from art to music as the result of an epiphany he had. Blickwedehl had been freelancing as a trumpet teacher, as well as playing in concerts. One day he realized that he hadn’t touched an art project in two weeks. He also realized how gratifying it was to see the eyes of one of the fellow students he was teaching light up when they mastered something musically. This is how teachers are born.

Blickwedehl’s stint at the Oberlin Conservatory involved trumpet, clarinet, the baritone, and many different band formations and genres, both solo and ensemble. Once back home, Blickwedehl had a high school band to build. So much, he notes, has changed over the years. From bringing East students to West to form a district band (2008-2010), to adding green to the band uniforms, and then on to the present-day black and gold, Blickwedehl has changed the culture, the look, and the expectations for the WSMB. “All gold on the uniforms is metallic. Gold is what unites us."

He is also delighted with the results of the capital improvements project that brought state-of-the-art football fields to both high schools. “We no longer have to worry if it rains. There is no swamp. It is tremendous!” he says. “And I was very glad to be part of the process, including the placement of gates and electrical outlets.”

WSMB Marching Band Director John Blickwedehl and his students are showing their gratitude by working hard and bringing home honors. They practice three days per week at the West Elementary tennis courts. This includes 3 hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 12-hour Saturdays. It’s paying off.

Band members are academics, musicians, and top athletes who are courageous and fit. Blickwedehl eagerly points out the rigors of being in a marching band. Other than the hours spent drilling, he says, "The endurance and conditioning required to perform for 7-8 minutes straight is crazy when you think about it. No sport has a "play" that lasts for more than a matter of seconds and usually there are backups or reserves on the bench. In marching band the entire team is in the play, you have two playbooks to learn music and visual that total 80 pages, the play lasts for 7-and-a-half minutes and we tell you when you can and can't breathe. Pretty intense really when you think about it!"

Just last week, the West Seneca Marching Band finished in the top 3 at the New York State Field Band Conference Championships in the JMA Wireless Dome at Syracuse University. The band earned a score of 88.3 for 3rd place in Large School 2 - only one point out of first place and winning Best Overall General Effect, and placing ahead of local competitors Webster and Orchard Park, while claiming their second top 3 finish in back-to-back years. And remember, the school-year score trajectory goes up.

At the end of the band's state finals performance, a General Effect judge had to stop his commentary to compose himself, being overcome by the band’s performance. For anyone who has thoroughly enjoyed the West Seneca Marching Band while tearing up, Blickwedehl will tell you, “It’s what we do.”

BONUS: If you missed seeing the West Seneca Marching Band this season, they have one more show that was just added! Look for the band performing during halftime at Highmark Stadium, on November 20th, when the Buffalo Bills play the Cleveland Browns. Go Bills! Go WSMB!

Photos: Melanie Adey

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East Senior's French Exchange Program, under the direction of teacher Colin O'Donnell, with plenty of help from fellow French teacher Kerri Krueger, was extremely excited to receive 35 students and 5 teachers, visiting from France. Here from November 3-10, the 35 students will stay with host families from East Senior, and the 5 teachers are staying with teachers from East. Town Supervisor Gary Dickson joined us to welcome our guests.

In advance of a French Exchange contingent making a trip to France at the end of March, our visitors are bringing France to us. Mr. O'Donnell explains, "Not all of our students and teachers who are going on the trip were able to host, and not everyone who is hosting is able to travel to France with us. This is great in the end, however, because we're able to expose more students and families to the program."

The first group visited in 2009, and Covid years aside, it has been going ever since. This is the first school year the exchange is taking place since 2020. O'Donnell, founder of the club, has been the facilitator/supervisor of the program since its inception. His interest in forming the club comes from a pleasant experience he had abroad, the likes of which he wanted to share with his students.

In 2005-2006, O'Donnell was an English teaching assistant in Brittany, France, through a program run by the French Embassy. During this time, he also worked in middle and high schools with roughly 7 different teachers. "One of the teachers I worked with, Odile, became a second mother to me when I was there," he recounts. "She took me into her home for a couple of weeks while I was waiting for my apartment, and we have been inseparable since. She's really become part of my family. One of the times she visited here, my son was only a few weeks old, and she helped us to take care of him," he says.

When O'Donnell was hired at West Seneca East, he and his friend started to talk about creating an exchange with our students, and it's been running ever since. Odile retired this past year, and has passed the torch to her colleague, Frederique, who has been with her from the start. "Frederique and I have become friends because of the exchange," O'Donnell says, "and I consider her to be part of our family as well."

The objective of the visit is simple - to expose our students at West Seneca East to people from other cultures, according to O'Donnell. "It's one thing to tell them French exists in the classroom, and it's another to show them the people who were born into it. I think it's important for our students to learn that kids in France are just like them."

We could not agree more! Our visitors' schedule is as follows, for their short-but-sweet stay in West Seneca. Welcome! Bienvenue!

Friday: Reception

Saturday and Sunday: Family days (and hopefully the Varsity football game at Iroquois, and the volleyball game at East)

Monday: French students tour Buffalo - Dance in the evening for all East students

Tuesday: Niagara Falls with all students, and Sabres game that evening

Wednesday: East Aurora visit

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Seniors from the Engineering Academy attended the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) Commercialization Competition at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center this past week.

NYSTAR is the Science and Technology arm of Empire State Development and they host an annual meeting for all of the Centers of Excellences and Centers for Advanced Technologies from across the state to come together and share the innovations and progress their centers have made as a result of the NYS funding.

Our partners at the University at Buffalo, the recipient of three NYS grants, invited our students to witness the Commercialization Competition, a chance for companies with a prototype to give a pitch and compete for up to $150,000 in prize money. The students and their teachers were duly impressed and inspired!

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The Outdoor Adventure Club, comprised of both East and West students, hiked to Chestnut Ridge's Eternal Flame via the Boy Scout Trail on October 27. Students enjoyed stretching their legs out on a 3-mile walk after school on a beautiful fall day. There is great merit to being in nature with friends, and it wasn't lost on these students. Many had never been to the Eternal Flame, and are now excited to explore more local treasures!

This newly formed club was the idea of West Seneca alumna and teacher Lauren Fibich, who always wished this club existed during her years as a student at West Senior. Lauren Fibich is joined by co-advisors/teachers Jeanne Skotnicki from the west side of town, and Ashley Sorensen and Michael Hartz from the east side of town.

Prior to Lauren’s first camping trip during June of her senior year, Jeanne, her teacher at the time, showed Lauren how to set up a tent on the sports fields adjacent to the baseball diamond. Lauren says that Jeanne was her English teacher and also her go-to with outdoor questions when she was in high school. When Lauren was hired as a WSCS Special Education teacher, the idea of forming this new club became a reality. Colleagues Mike and Lauren are also avid mountain hikers in their spare time, and have long discussed the merits of offering their students the opportunity to explore wild landscapes and take a break from the stressors of 21st century life.

The four educators banded together to make the Adventure Club available to students from both senior highs because they understood that this type of club would be in high demand for all students.

Tailor-made for students, the collective club's interest will determine the walks, hikes, climbs, and all the adventures they go on. East and West advisors hold building level meetings for the club and allow students to take ownership of the club and adventure ideas.

The group is still in the planning stages for their next trips, but students are weighing in with ideas of day trips to Allegany State Park, Letchworth State Park, Sprague Brook Park, etc. The hope is to eventually bring students to the Adirondack Mountains for a hiking trip.

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East Senior's Garden Club has worked on coming up with creative ways to keep those warm summer and fall days close to their hearts, and so they are moving their love of nature indoors.

"Our first project was to create our selfie station at the entrance of East Senior," says club advisor Lauren Clark. " Also, with the help and guidance of our art teacher, Kelley Mooar, students in our 12:1:1 classes have started a rain barrel painting project to help beautify our grounds in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way." East's 6:1:1 classrooms have happily pitched in to help with critical assembly and preparation.

Lauren notes that contributions from all of the club's members, big and small, "make the club truly amazing." Team work makes the dream work, and it makes the school look better!

"Look for our next big projects coming soon," says Ms. Clark. She gives it away with a sly, "Ho Ho Ho!" We can't wait to see what the Garden Club comes up with next.

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West Middle girls modified volleyball celebrated appreciation nights during the last two games of the season.

According to Coach Ashley Bonetto, each athlete was asked to select one person in their life who has had a significant impact on their lives. These people have been a positive influence and helped make a difference in making these girls the people they are today. They named teachers and staff members from West Middle School and student role models from West Senior High School, who acted as team facilitators during games.

Teachers and staff members selected included, Mrs. Dils, Mrs. Klavoon, Mrs. Kubiak (counselor), Mrs. Schreiner, Mrs. Smart (counselor), Mrs. Adamski, Mr. Weir, Mr. Paige, and Mr. Margilia.

High School student role models included Maeve Borden, Quinn Hagler, Sophie Hunter, and Madison MacNeill.

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Students in Mrs. Lutman's 6th Grade Home & Career Skills class learned basic hand-sewing skills and created their own felt monsters. Each student selected their basic pattern and designed their own unique felt monster.

Mrs. Lutman says, "The students worked on their fine motor skills by learning how to thread a needle, sew on a button and sew basic hand sewing stitches."

The students are all proud of their work, which is currently displayed outside the cafeteria. We are proud of Mrs. Lutman and her students for their creations that we all have a chance to enjoy before they go home with their creators.

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Enjoy your weekend!

Matthew Bystrak