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.”

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Biddle Foundation grants celebrate 60 years of impact

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

DURHAM, N.C. — On September 14, 1956, when Mary Duke Biddle established her philanthropic foundation, inspiring the foundation’s mission were lessons she had learned growing up in a family that believed in supporting causes and communities it cared about.

So she decided her new philanthropy would focus on making modest gifts that could multiply over time, providing access to education, enriching lives and communities through music and the arts, lifting up impoverished people through churches and congregations, and providing critical aid to communities.

In its first 60 years, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation has awarded nearly $43 million to those causes in North Carolina, where Mrs. Biddle was born and raised, and in New York City, where she lived for 20 years as an adult before returning to Durham.

Now, to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the Foundation has awarded five special grants totaling $125,000 to support efforts in North Carolina and New York City to boost the arts and arts education, to use orchestral training to equip more underserved kids to thrive, and to prepare more at-risk kids to succeed in school and life.

“The philanthropic legacy of Mary Duke Biddle continues to advance the arts and improve the lives of youth, particularly those who are less advantaged, in the communities she loved,” says Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Foundation.

Making an impact

The five special grants — $25,000 each to the Durham Arts Council, Kidznotes and StudentU, all in Durham; the Asheville Art Museum; and UpBeat NYC in the South Bronx — are designed to have a bigger impact on individual organizations and the people they serve. These awards are made in addition to the Foundation’s regular annual giving, including approximately 40 grants of $5,000 each in response to requests from nonprofits in North Carolina and New York City.

“Arts and youth education remain critical, ongoing needs in our community,” O’Brien says. “These special grants represent an investment to help innovative nonprofits make an even bigger difference expanding the impact of the arts and creating opportunities for young people to succeed.”

With the help of the five grants:

* Durham Arts Council will develop an online arts directory and continue to invest in

career development for emerging artists, underscoring Durham’s growing reputation as a hub for the arts.

* Kidznotes will use orchestral training to equip more underserved students to succeed in school and life, continue its expansion into economically-distressed Southeast Raleigh, and consider expanding to other parts of the Triangle region.

* StudentU will prepare more kids in Durham to graduate from high school, enroll in college and graduate, and then find ways to help their peers succeed in school and life.

* The Asheville Art Museum will provide access to arts education and activities to more underserved children in Asheville, Buncombe County and three rural counties in Western North Carolina.

* UpBeat NYC will provide free music training and orchestral instruction to more at- risk children in the South Bronx, along with hope for the future and a better chance to succeed in school and life.

Philanthropic legacy

Mary Duke Biddle, the daughter of Benjamin Newton Duke and granddaughter of Washington Duke, attended public schools in Durham, and in 1907 graduated from Trinity College, now Duke University.

Her father and uncle, James B. Duke, using wealth generated from tobacco, textile and electric power industries they developed in North Carolina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gave generously to their community and became known for their philanthropy. Both were benefactors of Durham’s Trinity College, and in 1924, through the newly chartered Duke Endowment, the college was named Duke University in honor of their father.

In establishing her own Foundation, Mary Duke Biddle designated that half the grant funding would go to Duke University, with the rest going to non-profit organizations that support a variety of causes in North Carolina and New York.

Mary Duke Biddle died in 1960 at age 73. For many years, the Foundation was led by her daughter, the late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, and her husband, the late James H. Semans, M.D.

“The Biddle Foundation continues its legacy of making the communities we serve Jbetter places to live and work,” says Jon Zeljo, chair of the Foundation’s board of trustees and great-grandson of Mary Duke Biddle. “We invest in programs that expand opportunities for everyone, connect and inspire diverse populations, and give people in need tools and hope for the future.”

Model for future funding

Including grants to organizations such as Duke University that it has funded for many years through long-standing relationships, the Foundation typically makes nearly $1 million in grants a year.

With an endowment of about $30 million, the Foundation continues to focus its funding on the arts and youth education, particularly in collaborative efforts that serve less advantaged populations.

The Foundation is using its 60th anniversary to examine how its grantmaking practices and programs can be more impactful to the organizations and causes it supports.

In addition to support for Duke and to grants it makes in response to applications, organizations the Foundation funds through long-standing relationships include, among others, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Durham Arts Council; American Dance Festival; Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle; and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

KidZNotes uses music for social change

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — In the school year that begins this month, 300 students in public elementary schools in Durham County and 60 in Wake County who otherwise could not afford to will be playing in a free symphony program, thanks to KidZNotes, a Durham nonprofit modeled on the pioneering El Sistema program.

Formed in 1975 to bring music to impoverished kids in the slums of Venezuela, El Sistema has reached 800,000 children throughout the world.

El Sistema is rooted in the idea that “music could change the social and economic circumstances, that music could be a means of empowerment out of poverty,” says Kathryn Wyatt, executive director of KidZNotes.

Founded in 2010 by Durham philanthropist Lucia Powe, KidZnotes has grown from 60 students its first year and this fall will include five low-income schools in Durham and three in Wake.

To cover the cost of $2,500 per student, the nonprofit receives 40 percent of its funding from individuals, 30 percent from foundations, and 20 percent from events and corporate partnerships.

KidZNotes collaborates with the public schools, which provide free space and the cost of music teachers who team teach with 25 part-time music instructors who work with the nonprofit as independent contractors.

It also partners with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which manages a collaboration of dozens of partner agencies working to support families and children in a 120-block area east of downtown Durham.

And it collaborates with groups such as the North Carolina Symphony, Duke University, Carolina Performing Arts, American Dance Festival and the Durham Performing Arts Center that provide the kids with free attendance at events.

“We’ve accomplished what we’ve been able to accomplish because we’ve worked as a collaborative organization,” says Wyatt, who learned the viola in third grade, 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.

In 2009, Wyatt was one of 10 people selected in the inaugural class of the year-long Abreu Fellowship, named for Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, that immersed her in the program and focused on how to replicate it in the U.S.

Before beginning the fellowship, she met Powe, who wanted to launch an El Sistema program in Durham, already had begun raising money for it, and agreed to hire Wyatt as the founding executive director when she returned from Venezuela.

At KidZNotes, which operates with an annual budget of $650,000 and a staff of four people, every student begins in kindergarten at the beginning, or “Mozart” level, by learning to play the violin and read music, spending 10 hours a week in classes after school and Saturdays.

Starting in first grade, students through auditions can advance to the intermediate, or “Brahms” level, learning different instruments and spending 10 hours a week at a central “nucleo” after school and weekends that brings together students from different schools to practice together in a symphony setting.

Students eventually can progress to the advanced, or “Beethoven” level.

Parents learn to play along with their children, and their participation is critical, Wyatt says.

“Every parent who has a kid learning to play an instrument knows that home practice is key to success and advancement,” she says. “Music has become part of their lives.”

KidZNotes, one of 80 El Sistema programs in the U.S., aims to expand to 500 students in Durham in three years and to 500 students Wake in five years, and eventually would like to operate throughout the state.

The public schools also are tracking the KidZNotes students’ grades, attendance, behavior and end-of-year testing, and comparing them to those of public school students overall in the same grades.

“Music instruction significantly enhances the executive function of the brain,” says Wyatt, a founding member of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs. “The El Sistema movement is an energizing, active, involved movement of many, many people coming behind the idea that music has the power to change lives.”