Harvesting books to boost child literacy

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Growing up in Atlanta, Ginger Young became a “voracious reader who thrived in childhood because of books, and took great comfort and solace and inspiration from books.”

Then, starting in the mid-1990s and living in the Triangle, she says, she took her own children to the public library once a week so they would have a “childhood full of books and reading and vocabulary development.”

But she also saw a troubling gap in kids’ access to books based on their parents’ income.

Children’s opportunity to get books “should not be connected to how much money their parents make,” she says. “There is no reason every child in our community can’t grow up in a book-rich home.”

So in 2011, Young tested an idea: She asked friends and colleagues to donate their own children’s books. In return, she promised to distribute them to children who otherwise might not get a chance to read or own a book.

Within two weeks, her garage was stocked with bags and boxes filled with 6,000 books. By the end of the month, donations had grown to 10,000.

That was the start of Book Harvest, a Durham nonprofit that now has distributed nearly 700,000 books through home visits to families with newborn babies, and through schools, nonprofits and other partners.

Operating with an annual budget of $728,000, eight full-time employees, and nearly 500 volunteers, including 100 who volunteer regularly, Book Harvest works to get books into the hands of children up to age 18, and to promote literacy for kids and families.

It operates four programs in the Triangle that provide a “continuum” of books and literacy support based on a child’s age.

It also is developing plans to serve more people with its own programs, and find ways for other communities to adopt those programs.

And it is heading a collaborative effort in Durham that is part of a national initiative in over 300 communities to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

In Durham, the effort aims to increase to 70 percent in 2025 from 45.7 percent in 2016 the number of children who read on grade level at the end of third grade — and to 66 percent by 2025 from 33.2 percent in 2016 the number from low-income homes who read at that level.

Key to the developing the most effective local strategies to inspire children to read will be parental leadership, says Young, founder and executive director of Book Harvest.

“The people who can best chart that path are the parents,” she says.

Book Harvest gears its delivery of books and literacy support to a child’s age.

Its Books Babies program, for example, is based on research that shows 80 percent of the brain is developed by age three, “which means we have to really front-load book access for families where there’s a newborn,” Young says.

So, through referrals from partner agencies such as Durham Connect, a nurse home-visiting program, Book Harvest enrolls newborns and their families starting six weeks to two months after birth.

It provides them with books. And three to four times a year for the first three years, and then two to three times a year for the next two years, it visits families’ homes and offers literacy coaching for parents.

Currently, 260 families are enrolled, each getting 20 books a year.

To address the challenge of summer “learning loss” for students while school is out, Book Harvest offers Books on Break, a program that provides 10 free books at the end of the school year the children select themselves — a total of nearly 71,000 books this year — for nearly 19,000 students at 44 public schools in Durham, Orange and Chatham counties and Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools.

Once a week, through its Community Book Bank, it also stocks shelves it has set up in the waiting rooms of about 65 partner organizations– such as social service agencies, health clinics, and after-school and tutoring programs, mainly in Durham and Orange counties — where children can select books and take them to build their own home libraries.

That effort, which was Book Harvest’s initial program, this year will distribute just over 100,000 books to children.

And at Books to Go events it hosts three times a year, teachers and officials from about  80 schools and nonprofits that work with middle-school and high-school students can visit Book Harvest to pick books the students then can select and keep for their home libraries.

This year, that effort is expected to put at least 30,000 books into the hands of students.

This year, Book Harvest also launched a service that twice a week sends text messages to parents who subscribe, offering tips on reading to children, and on summer reading opportunities at libraries and other locations.

Partnerships are central to Book Harvest’s work, Young says.

In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority and Durham County Library, for example, Book Harvest aims to “make sure every child that lives in each of DHA’s eight housing communities, has a big stack of books next to their bed.”

It also provides “literacy-enrichment activities” for those children through after-school and summer programs in those eight communities.

Ultimately, Young says, improving child literacy depends on raising community awareness of the need, and getting the community involved in addressing it.

“It’s all about civic engagement and the public narrative about what is acceptable for our children,” Young says.

“There are hundreds of thousands of books, and thousands of book donors and volunteers who are well on their way to creating book-rich environments throughout our community,” she says. “What we are going to do next is to take that transactional experience of book provision, which is what we started with, and turn it into how we transform outcomes for children, to go from transactional to transformational.”

Students find hope at the WELL

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab in Raleigh, the families and friends of 19 Wake County high-school seniors attended a “Senior Signing Day” to celebrate the students’ hopes for the future.

Unlike signing events at which professional sports teams announce their “picks” of top college athletes, the WELL event underscored the high-school students’ academic achievement: All will graduate this year, with 17 going to college — roughly half will be the first in their families to move on to post-secondary education — and two entering military service.

Over the past four years, all 19 students participated in programs at the WELL, a nonprofit that provides after-school and summer support in academics and youth development to students facing challenges in school and life.

“Schools cannot do this all by themselves,” says Betsey McFarland, executive director of the WELL. “There are not enough teachers, not enough hours, not enough money. They need community programs like ours.”

Formed in 1996 by the late Elizabeth Edwards, who was married to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the WELL is named for their son, Wade Edwards, who was killed in an automobile accident in April 1996 at age 16 while a student at Broughton High School.

At first, the WELL provided only a computer lab, tutoring and career workshops, and only for Broughton students.

But in the five years McFarland has headed the organization, it has added programs and expanded beyond Broughton.

In the school year that ended a year ago, the WELL served over 900 students — triple the number five years ago — from 22 high schools, mostly in Wake County.

Operating with an annual budget of $345,000, a staff of three full-time employees, and 13 volunteer tutors, the WELL gets 40 percent of its operating funds from the Lucius Wade Edwards Foundation, a charitable foundation that had $1.87 million in assets in 2015, according to its 990 annual return on file with the IRS.

Catharine “Cate” Edwards, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Edwards, serves on the boards of the Foundation and the WELL.

Located across St. Mary’s Street from Broughton, the WELL houses a 21-desktop computer lab, open weekdays from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., that typically attracts 20 to 25 Broughton students at any given time.

Over the past school year, by appointment, about 120 students from throughout Wake County also worked with volunteer tutors from the WELL.

About 150 Wake students enrolled in a one-day prep course the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month throughout the school year on the SAT and ACT exams many colleges require for admission.

Another 50 to 60 students participated in Hi-Tech Teens, a workshop the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month that focuses on computers and computer programming.

To boost youth development, the WELL also offers a weekly program on life skills such as professional etiquette, and a weekly discussion session on social and emotional issues.

It also connects students to community service projects, and assigns them to host is own events and lead tours of its computer lab.

Now, aiming to make its programming more accessible, the WELL hopes to raise $20,000 to $30,000 for a vehicle to pick up students throughout the county and bring them to its offices, or $35,000 to $40,000 to offer its programs in partnership with another organization that serves teens but does not focus on academic support.

To help raise those funds, particularly from individual donors and corporations, it has created a strategic fundraising committee, chaired by its board chair, Jaime Kulow, a vice president at Bank of North Carolina.

“The goal is to encourage more individual donors and more corporate participation around our mission,” MacFarland says.

And with the challenges growing both for schools and at-risk students, advancing that mission is critical, she says.

While the graduation rate in Wake County totals 87 percent, for example, only 65.8 percent of students who graduate enroll in college, she says.

“There’s so much focus on early childhood education and third-grade reading, which is absolutely important,” McFarland says. “But if our students continue to live in poverty, continue to be subject to crises in their life, continue to be in schools that can’t serve some of their greater needs, they can pass all the third-grade reading tests they want, but they’re still going to get to high school and they’re still going to be behind.”

Nonprofit uses dance to help kids cope

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Fourth grade can be challenging for young people, a confusing time between early-childhood and adolescence when they begin to encounter new experiences they are not always prepared to handle.

For students in families facing economic distress, fourth grade can be even more difficult.

Since 2005, Durham-based nonprofit North Carolina Arts in Action has used dance to help fourth-graders in need navigate the challenges and changes they are facing and to equip them to succeed in school and life.

Inspired by a teaching methodology developed by Jacques d’Amboise, founder of the National Dance Institute and a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, N.C. Arts in Action aims to “bring out the best in every child, regardless of background or experience in  dance, and regardless of talent and abilities, including special needs,” says Marlon Torres, its executive director.

Operating with an annual budget of about $356,000, the nonprofit this year serves over 1,000 students in 10 schools, including seven in Wake County and one each in Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.

That’s 200 more students than it served last year and 600 more than five years ago, when it served students in four schools in two counties.

That growth reflects a five-year effort to strengthen its staff and board, improve its fundraising, and better integrate dance into the classroom curriculum for more fourth-grade students in more low-income public schools.

Funded with a total of $60,000 in grants over five years from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation Durham to build its organizational “capacity,” N.C. Arts in Action has expanded and trained its board of directors to play a more active role in planning and fundraising.

It has hired an artistic director and part-time office assistant, added more teaching artists and teaching assistants, and provided training on its teaching methodology to them and to classroom teachers in the schools it serves.

It has more than doubled its annual support from foundations to $220,000, and from individuals to $50,000.

And it has developed a new partnership with the Wake County Public  School System, which now provides 40 percent of the the funding N.C. Arts in Action needs to serve seven Wake schools.

Once a week for 18 to 25 weeks in each of the 10 participating schools, the entire fourth grade devotes 50 minutes to 60 minutes to dance instruction that also is designed to reinforce lessons the students are learning in academic subjects, such as storytelling, social studies and science.

Teaching the classes are a lead teacher and choreographer, an assistant teacher, and a musician, with live music included in every class.

The classes culminate in two large-scale productions for the entire school and the community.

On a Wednesday in late March, Torres led 60 fourth-graders through a rehearsal for a performance, including a piece called “Electromagnetism,” that underscores this year’s academic theme of technology.

Fourth-graders, he says, are at an age when they are “ready physically for the rigorous demand of the program, which uses dance as a tool for teaching important life skills, and when students begin to take ownership of their own learning.”

Adequacy of school financing still ‘a problem’

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s system for financing schools is “relatively equitable, stable and flexible,” but its adequacy “most likely remains a problem” for its public schools, a new report says.

Enrollment has grown steadily to about 1.5 million students, including nearly 90,000 at 167 charter schools, while spending per pupil overall, as well as personnel per student in traditional schools, both have declined, says Financing Education in North Carolina, a report from the North Carolina Justice Center.

Per-pupil spending

In fiscal 2016, the state ranked 44th in the U.S. on spending per pupil, down one spot from before fiscal 2009, when budget cuts were made in the face of the recession, the report says.

Per-pupil spending has grown just over two percent since fiscal 2009, but has declined over eight percent when adjusted for inflation, the report says.

In fiscal 2016, per-pupil spending in North Carolina was $3,182 below the national average of about $12,000, the report says.

In fiscal 2009, it says, per-pupil spending in North Carolina had been $1,552 below the national average of over $10,000.

Enrollment and personnel

Enrollment in the state’s public schools has grown 18.6 percent over the past 15 years, driven in recent years by the number of students enrolled in charter schools, the report says.

Yet the number of personnel per student in the state’s traditional public schools has fallen 10.4 percent since fiscal 2009, including six percent fewer teachers and 31 percent fewer teacher assistants, the report says.

Urban school districts continue to attract students, while most rural districts are losing students, with only 28 districts growing in fiscal 2017, and 87 districts losing students.

Diverse districts

North Carolina is home to 115 school districts, including 89 that share their borders with counties, and multiple school districts in 11 counties.

The state is home to nearly 2,600 schools, including charter schools, and they represent diverse populations and student demographics.

The school districts in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, are among the 20 largest school districts in the U.S., with each enrolling about 150,000 students, while 40 districts in the state enroll fewer than 4,000 students.

The number of students in Wake, the biggest district in the state, is about the same as the combined total of the state’s 54 smallest districts.

Nearly 18 percent of students in Asheboro City Schools speak English as a second language, compared to fewer than one percent of students in Weldon City Schools.

And 28 percent of students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools qualify for lunch that is free or at a reduced price, compared to 88 percent of students in Lexington City Schools.

And 19 percent of students in Stokes County have an identified disability, compared to seven percent in Clinton City Schools.

Funding sources

State law requires that the state pay for instructional expenses for current operations of public schools, and that counties pay for public-education facilities.

In North Carolina, the state historically has accounted for about 65 percent of school district funding.

Local funding —  including appropriations from county governments, as well as private donations — accounts for about 25 percent, and federal funding accounts for about 10 percent.

In fiscal 2014, throughout the U.S., states on average accounted for 46 percent of public school revenue, while local funding accounted for 45 percent and the federal government accounted for nine percent.

State funding

In North Carolina, most state funding for public schools — a total $9.4 billion in fiscal 2017 — is based on student “headcount,” which is measured by the number of students enrolled each day divided by the number of days in the month.

The 10 largest funding categories — such as classroom teachers; children with special needs; transportation; and teacher assistants — represent 90 percent of all state funding distributed to the schools.

Federal funding

In fiscal 2016, child nutrition accounted for 37 percent of federal funds North Carolina received for public schools, while funding to help children from low-income families account for 31 percent and funds for services for students with disabilities accounted for 22 percent.

Local funding

Local spending on schools varies dramatically among school districts, both in amount and share of funds, the report says.

In the fiscal 2016, local spending per pupil in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools totaled $5,710, for example, compared to $415 in Swain County.

And local sources accounted for half of total spending by the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Schools, compared to only eight percent for Robeson County.

North Carolina is one of 18 states with a funding system that, on average, directs more resources to poor districts than wealthy districts, yet local wealth allows some individual school districts to supplement funding for schools to levels most districts cannot afford, the report says.

Lottery

Revenue from the North Carolina Lottery allocated to support education — less than 35 percent of total Lottery revenue since fiscal 2008 — has grown to $592 million from $325 million 10 years ago, yet accounts for only five percent of total state support for public schools, the report says

Much of the funding from the Lottery, it says, now supports programs previously supported by spending from the  state’s General Fund, allowing state lawmakers to “shift” General Fund spending to programs outside the education budget.

The state is not responsible for capital spending but sometimes issues bonds support school construction, while the Lottery, currently $100 million, supports construction projects.

School districts in the state project their facility needs will total $8.1 billion over the next five years.

Charter schools and vouchers

State funding for charter schools — public schools given additional operating flexibility and overseen by independent nonprofit boards of directors rather than locally-elected school boards — exceeded $461 million in fiscal 2017.

Two voucher programs — which provide state funding to families of students who attend a private schools — provided scholarships for over 5,000 students in low-income families in fiscal 2017, and grants for over 800 students with disabilities.

Salaries and benefits

Ninety-four percent of state spending for public schools, and 84 percent of total spending for schools, supports salaries and benefits of state employees, the report says.

Over time, it says, common measures of inflation, such as the Consumer Price Index, “underestimate the actual budget pressures faced by public schools.”

That’s because schools spend most of their money on college-educated professionals, such as teachers and principals, the report says, and wages and benefits for college-educated workers tend to rise faster than the cost of goods, which often can become less expensive as a result of technological advances.

So public schools “face cost pressures above those reflected by traditional inflation measures,” the report says.

— Todd Cohen

Boosting kids’ reading is focus of new effort

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Early in 2016, a coalition of 31 groups in Wake County staged its third annual book drive and collected 115,000 books.

Known as WAKE Up and Read, the coalition last spring hosted literacy nights for children and parents at 10 elementary schools with the highest percentage of low-income students receiving lunch for free or at a discounted price, and at 20 nearby child-care centers whose children go on to those schools, as well as nine community centers.

The focus of the literacy nights was the importance of helping kids continue to learn during the summer to improve their reading over the summer and avoid an erosion of academic progress they make during the previous school year.

The week after the literacy nights, all the children were able to select 10 books to keep, with their parents reading one book to the children each week over the summer.

“Children who are behind get more behind and so it’s very difficult to catch up,”  says Lisa Finaldi, community engagement leader at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

For the next three years, the Early Childhood Foundation will be working with WAKE Up and Read and separate coalitions in Chatham, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties that aim to help improve reading proficiency among targeted low-income children so they can read at grade level by the end of third grade.

In those five counties, less than 40 percent of economically disadvantaged students were reading at grade level by the end of third grade last year, compared to nearly 58 percent of all student.

The new effort is being funded over three years with an initial investment of $700,000, including $625,000 from Triangle Community Foundation and at least $25,000 from United Way of the Greater Triangle.

Triangle Community Foundation has agreed to give $50,000 a year to each coalition in Wake, Durham, Chatham and Orange counties, and $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation.

United Way has pledged $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation, and will fund the Johnston County initiative, although the amount has not been determined, Finaldi says.

WAKE Up and Read is the only coalition that already has a plan for using the money.

The coalitions in Durham, Chatham and Orange counties still are developing their plans, and the Johnston County coalition still is taking shape.

In addition to schools and child-care centers, coalition partners can range from pre-kindergarten programs to faith congregations and businesses.

In Wake County, corporate partners include PNC Bank, Fidelity and Eaton Corp., which provides free warehouse space for sorting donated books.

And as part of a local coalition in Dubuque, Iowa, Finaldi says, a barbershop gives free haircuts to kids who read a book while getting the haircut.

The Early Childhood Foundation is lead agency in North Carolina for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to improve reading proficiency among low-income students by the end of third grade.

Research shows that, in addition to summer learning, improving reading proficiency depends on improving attendance at school and making sure children arrive at kindergarten with the social, emotional and developmental skills to learn, Finaldi says.

The two funders of the new Triangle initiative aim to raise more money to invest in local partnerships over the long term, she says.

“You have to have a coalition,” she says. “Schools or parents cannot solve this problem alone.”

Kidznotes growing in Wake, considers expansion

[Note: This was written for The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Kidznotes, a Durham nonprofit that uses orchestral training to prepare underserved students to succeed in school and life, will continue its expansion into economically-distressed Southeast Raleigh and is considering future growth in other parts of the Triangle, thanks in part to a $25,000 grant from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham.

Formed in 2010, Kidznotes will serve 300 students in Durham and 150 in Wake County this school year, up from a total of 330 last year. It plans to add another 35 Raleigh students this year and grow to a total of 1,000 students in the Triangle by 2020.

And it is considering expanding to new areas in the 2017-18 school year.

Kidznotes was inspired by El Sistema, an effort that began in 1975 in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, and now reaches millions of students throughout the world, including hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela and 30,000 in 120 communities in the U.S.

The Durham nonprofit partners with public schools in which over 80 percent of students qualify for lunch that is free or at a reduced price.

“Our kids face significant stress at home, in school and in their communities as a result of poverty,” says Katie Wyatt, executive director and co-founder of Kidznotes. “Now, they are on track for good grades, good retention, low suspension rates and low detention rates, and will be at the top of school in high school and beyond.”

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says Kidznotes “demonstrates the foundation’s long-held conviction that the arts can be a vehicle for social change. We are enthusiastic about making this empowering opportunity available to more children.” This grant is made as part of the foundation’s celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Making music

Co-founded by Durham philanthropist Lucia Powe, Kidznotes operates with an annual budget of $1 million, and a staff of 10 people working full-time and part-time, plus about 40 teaching artists.

In partnership with five elementary schools each in Durham and Raleigh, and a middle school in Durham, it immerses students in music instruction after school, and on Saturdays it assembles all the students in each community for orchestra or band rehearsals, along with choir rehearsals.

All Kidznotes students learn violin in kindergarten, with kindergarteners and first-graders spending a total of six hours a week after school and Saturdays on the program, and older students spending at least 10 hours a week.

Starting in first or second grade, students join either a band or orchestra, and all students also participate in a choir starting in kindergarten.

“Knowing how to sing makes the best musicians,” says Wyatt, a violist who played with the New World Symphony in Miami for two-and-a-half years, and served as director of education for the North Carolina Symphony. “You have to have an internal sense of pulse and pitch.”

Kidznotes provides instructors for all instruments, and each school provides a music teacher for team-teaching after school, and for orchestra or band instruction one Saturday a month.

Kidznotes also provides all instruments and the curriculum, while the participating schools pay for the music teacher and provide rent-free space, a snack, and a bus after school to take students from their schools to the Kidznotes home base, known as a “nucleo.”

Music to thrive

Students who participate in Kidznotes do better in school and are prepared to succeed in life and work, Wyatt says, because learning an instrument and performing in an orchestra stimulate brain development.

Those activities also lead to increased executive functioning skills; greater academic achievement and language comprehension; improved social skills; advanced character development; more nimble physical coordination; greater self-confidence; and the critical skills of problem-solving, self-discipline and teamwork.

“As you learn new skills and create new sounds and advance on your instrument, your brain improves in the way it works,” Wyatt says. “El Sistema uses the orchestra and assembling a mini-society to create a model of living and of human effort that is really about every single person mastering their part and blending it to create something of great beauty that is bigger than just yourself.”

Partners in music

In addition to public schools, key partners of Kidznotes are other schools, professional arts organizations and parents.

Serving as volunteer mentors to Kidznotes students, for example, are students and teachers from the North Carolina School of  Science and Math, Durham School of the Arts, Durham Academy, and East Chapel Hill High School, among others.

Guest artists from professional organizations like the North Carolina Symphony, North Carolina Opera and Duke Performances, among others, work with Kidznotes students, who also are invited to attend their performances for free.

And parents of Kidznotes students are encouraged to attend all performances. Kidznotes students perform at least six times a year, typically 10 to 12 times, and as many as 25 times for the most advanced students.

Last year, for example, they performed at the Raleigh Convention Center for the annual Spree of the Junior League of Raleigh; at a Sunday morning service at Christ Church in Raleigh; and in the Red Hat Amphitheater for the annual Band Together concert culminating a year-long partnership that raised $1 million, including $850,000 for Kidznotes.

Wyatt also is executive director of El Sistema USA, which in July announced a partnership in which Duke University will incubate an effort to provide professional development opportunities to program directors for organizations like Kidznotes that are members of the national organization.

Music impact

The schools Kidznotes partners with serve some of the Triangle’s most underserved communities. Unemployment in Southeast Raleigh totals 12.2 percent, eight percentage points higher than Wake County overall, for example, while the median income in the region totals $28,370, roughly $35,000 below the Wake County average.

“Children from the neighborhoods we serve confront unfortunate, poverty-based reality even before they arrive at the schoolhouse door,” Wyatt says. “The Kidznotes and El Sistema philosophy is designed systematically to build a wellspring of positivity, joy and healing, and drive, and also a lot of hard work in a highly creative environment to work hand-in-hand with families to overcome the deficits of poverty.”

Getting South Bronx kids in tune for success

[Note: This was written for The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.]

BRONX, N.Y. — Giving more at-risk children in the South Bronx hope and a better chance to succeed in school and life is the focus of a $25,000 grant to UpBeat NYC, a local nonprofit that provides free music training and orchestral instruction for kids in the Mott Haven neighborhood.

Founded in 2009 by a family of New York City musicians and operating in a public library and two churches, the nonprofit this year will serve 150 children, teens and young adults ages five to 21, as well as 10 to 15 parents and infants.

“A music program accessible to everyone in a community gives children and youth an opportunity to see the potential in their lives, shows them they have the ability to do whatever they set their minds to, and gives them a taste of creating beauty in a group through hard work,” says Liza Austria, executive director and co-founder of UpBeat NYC.

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, N.C., which awarded the grant, says learning to play an instrument and perform in an orchestra “can help children in economically distressed neighborhoods overcome the challenges of low expectations and build the skills, confidence and teamwork that will help them thrive.”

This grant is made as part of the foundation’s celebration of its 60th anniversary. “Mary Duke Biddle, my great-grandmother, lived part of her life in New York City. She wanted her foundation to support programs in that city, and the board takes great care to meet her expectation,” said Jon Zeljo, chair of the board of trustees.

Making music

UpBeat NYC was inspired by El Sistema, an effort that began in 1975 in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, and now reaches millions of students throughout the world, including hundreds of thousands in Venezuela and 30,000 in 120 communities in the U.S.

Founded by Austria, a singer and dancer, and her husband, Richard Miller, a jazz saxophonist, UpBeat NYC operates with an annual budget of $200,000, and a paid staff of one person working full-time and one working part-time, as well as nine teachers who work on an hourly basis several times a week under contract, and seven volunteer instructors.

Children enroll on a first-come, first-served basis, with no auditions. Most students begin in a pre-orchestra class, learning basic music theory, not an instrument, and participating in a choir.

Next, students take classes that focus on a particular instrument like a violin or clarinet and how they work, followed by classes in which the students are part of a group receiving instruction on how to play a real instrument. Then, they become part of a string or wind orchestra. Eventually, they join an advanced orchestra that combines string, wind and percussion instruments.

Using some of the funds from the Biddle Foundation, UpBeat NYC will begin a new track for brass and woodwind instruments, and for percussion, beginning with pre-orchestra instrument instruction. The organization in the past has offered wind and percussion opportunities at the orchestra level only.

The new track will include a wind-instrument initiation class and then separate classes for clarinet, trumpet, trombone and percussion.

With 50 more students beginning to learn those instruments this year, UpBeat NYC  plans within the next year to form an intermediate orchestra, and then plans the following year to form a beginner orchestra.

This fall, UpBeat NYC also will begin a new class to initiate infants and parents into the world of music. The organization already offers a choir for parents.

It will use the remainder of the Biddle funds to buy new instruments and music supplies, and support its operations.

Music to thrive

For years, UpBeat NYC has taught classes for advanced wind and percussion players, who have shown significant musical and personal progress. They and their parents report that learning to play an instrument in a group with their peers heightens and improves students’ motivation, and helps build their confidence, self-awareness, capacity to focus, empathy, emotional stability and academic achievement.

“We believe that all children are innately musical,” Austria says.

Tapping that natural talent is critical in a community with failing schools, a scarcity of quality programs during periods when children are not in school, and a bleak outlook among families for the education, well-being and future of their children.

Looming over children in the community are ever-present dangers and negative influences. Local rates of teen pregnancy and juvenile criminality are high, and more than half the children live in poverty.

“All our activities are designed to address the root causes of the social exclusion and isolation of children in the South Bronx,” Austria says.

Those causes include the lack of positive social activities open to everyone, social acceptance of low achievement, and the absence of opportunities to pursue challenging, long-term endeavors that promote personal growth and change.

“Music can play a powerful role in preparing children to shape their own lives and become agents of improving their community,” Austria says. “Through long-term musical training and experience in performing, our students develop the patience and persistence required to excel as individuals and to learn to contribute as supporters and leaders in the context of collaborative music-making.”

El Sistema

UpBeat NYC has plugged into El Sistema and its network of programs in the U.S.

The organization collaborates on student workshops and shares best practices with four other El Sistema-inspired programs that serve Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, where UpBeat NYC initially was launched.

In the summer of 2015, it took 34 of its students to Caracas to take lessons and perform with their counterparts in El Sistema’s main orchestra there, while some of its teachers participated in teacher training.

Teaching artists from El Sistema in Venezuela have visited UpBeat NYC to work with its students and provide training for its teachers, some of whom plan another visit Venezuela to receiving more training.

And this summer, five of its students participated at Bard College in the National Take A Stand Festival of El Sistema USA.

Family affair

As struggling artists living and working in New York City, Austria and Miller saw a big gap between the cultural opportunities within their reach and the lack of options for children living in poverty. And her family helped her see the need to create opportunities for at-risk kids.

Austria’s mother, a long-time New York City public school teacher who taught her to play piano as a young child, had long been concerned about budget cuts for arts education and the growing emphasis on testing. Austria’s older brother Ruben Austria, also a musician, is executive director of Community Connections for Youth, a South Bronx nonprofit that provides alternatives to incarceration for youth.

So when her late father, classical bassist Jamie Suarez Austria, learned about El Sistema and its impact in helping children throughout the world lift themselves out of poverty, he inspired Austria and Miller to launch UpBeat NYC.

Austria works on a pro-bono basis. Miller is one of the organization’s two paid employees. Her younger brother John Austria, formerly a volunteer instructor, is a paid instructor. And her mother, Christine Austria, is a volunteer instructor.

While UpBeat NYC still is a small organization, the Biddle grant will allow it to continue to grow from its startup in a storefront in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“My father’s passion about El Sistema showed us a model for this kind of work,” Austria says. “For my family, after my father died in 2010 from lung cancer, we continued to do this work and grow it. We’re a little in awe sometimes by how far this has come.”