Nonprofit champions Southern documentaries

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Making documentary movies in and about the South can be a struggle. Compared to cultural and business capitals like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the region is short on the professional networks of investors, distributors and other key players that the documentary industry depends on, says Naomi Walker, executive director of the Southern Documentary Fund, or SDF.

Founded in 2002, the Durham-based nonprofit works to cultivate documentaries about the region and to plug regional documentary-makers into the national networks critical to their success. A key role has been to serve as a fiscal sponsor for documentaries, including 150 that have been completed and another 73 still in progress.

SDF acts as a matchmaker and consultant for documentary-makers, providing connections, feedback and mentoring designed to improve their work, help get it financed and distributed, and increase its social impact.

And since 2014, SDF itself has made four grants a year, of $2,500 to $7,000 each, as seed money for documentaries, thanks to a five-year, $100,000 grant from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham.

The funding for that “re-granting” has raised SDF’s profile with national funders, Walker says.

SDF is seeking additional funding it would use to make more grants to more documentary-makers, match them with mentors, and generate feedback for works in progress. It also would create a “civic-media incubator,” starting in the Triangle, featuring a public event at which anyone could pitch ideas to documentary-film students. Veteran moviemakers would mentor students making short documentaries.

A first grant, however small, can mean a lot to a documentary-maker, and can be a critical catalyst for more funding, Walker says.

“Grants beget grants,” she says. “It gives them cache and leverage they need to get more funds. It puts them on the radar of bigger funding.”

A documentary can cost $100,000 to millions of dollars to make, Walker says.

“Documentary filmmakers typically have to do a lot of other work to support themselves, so it can take years,” she says. “It’s more of an avocation than a career.”

And while documentary-makers, like many artists, often do much of their creative work alone, they also want to be part of a community to share skills and ideas, and talk about problems they face in their work, she says.

To foster Southern documentary-makers and documentaries about the South, SDF aims to “create the community they need,” Walker says.

The South, for example, is short on executive producers, she says, referring to people who work to help documentary-makers secure investment and distribution deals needed to make movies and get them shown.

So, next spring, SDF initially plans to match a handful of moviemakers, one each, with a handful of prospective funders. Each funder will take the respective moviemaker to dinner once a quarter for a year. If a pair hits it off, the prospective funder would host a fundraising house party, using a guide SDF will create. SDF than would host roundtable events for the new funders to talk with veteran executive producers.

“Most documentary filmmakers have to leave the South and move to New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco to have access to industry connections and to get the work that supports their field,” Walker says. “We want makers to be able to stay here and flourish.”

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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.”

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.”

Museum helping more at-risk students learn through art

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

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — More underserved children in Asheville, Buncombe County and three rural counties in Western North Carolina will have access to arts education and activities through a $25,000 grant to the Asheville Art Museum to build partnerships with local schools and parks-and-recreation centers.

The funds, from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, will help the Museum provide nearly 10,000 hours of visual-arts programming to 950 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in McDowell, Henderson and Madison counties.

During the course of a year, the Museum will offer to 1,200 pre-school children and their caregivers in Asheville and Buncombe County a weekly program it has piloted on a monthly basis since 2012.

“The arts are an essential component in developing critical thinking skills that lead to success, yet over the past 20 years there has been a steady decline in funding for the arts,” says Pamela L. Myers, the Museum’s executive director. “We partner with schools throughout the region to ensure that the diverse population of students have full access to art and education, and to programs that allow for students with different learning styles to excel in the arts and in their academic studies.”

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says the Museum’s expansion of its programs will provide new opportunities for underserved students and preschoolers to thrive.

“The arts are a powerful, inspiring tool that helps children and adults alike learn, grow and connect with the people and places in their lives,” she says.

The Foundation made the grant as part of the celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Arts and education

Established by artists in 1948, the Asheville Art Museum is the only accredited visual arts institution serving all 24 counties in Western North Carolina, a region of over 1.2 million residents and some of the most underserved and low-wealth school districts in the state.

For school districts in the region, particularly in the face of increasingly tight budgets for education, access to educational innovation and auxiliary services such as arts education is limited.

“They are places in which teachers and school administrators struggle to provide enrichment to the diversity of their students,” Myers says.

To help fill that gap, the Museum serves as the arts education partner of schools.

‘Literacy Through Art’

In 1994, the Museum launched its Literacy Through Art program, a partnership with school districts to boost student literacy by integrating the arts with learning. Yet with the steady decline in public support for enrichment programs beyond the traditional curriculum of reading, writing and math, the Museum has been providing a growing share of resources for the program.

With the involvement of principals and classroom teachers, the Museum provides nine lessons of 60 minutes each in participating schools. Leading the classroom lessons, which meet state goals and objectives in language arts and visual arts, are artist-educators.

The 10th and final lesson includes a visit to the Museum — with some schools providing transportation — for a gallery tour and hands-on studio activity.

And by collaborating with the artist-educators, participating classroom teachers can build their skills to incorporate art into their classroom activities.

An evaluation of the program by a researcher at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching suggested that students benefit academically from the program because it addresses multiple learning styles to build visual and language art skills.

In McDowell, Henderson and Madison counties, which will get the program as a result of the Biddle Foundation grant, the poverty rate is above 17.2 percent. And the percentage of students who get lunch that is free or at a reduced price totals over 63 percent in Madison and McDowell counties, and 54 percent in Henderson County.

Without the Museum program, and in the wake of budget cuts and limited resources for many school districts, visual arts would not be part of the curriculum for most students in those counties. Madison County, which was part of the program when it was launched in 1994, has not participated since 2004 because of budget cuts.

‘Tot Time’

Four years ago, the Museum began piloting its Tot Time program, which features guided art activities for pre-school children and their caregivers. Offered once a month at the Museum, each session focuses on a different topic or theme.

The program uses a range of art activities to improve motor skills, language development and visual learning, while fostering interest in the arts and providing socialization for preschoolers and their caregivers.

Now, through the Biddle Foundation grant, the Museum will conduct five Tot Time programs a month for a year for a total of 60 visits to public libraries and parks-and-recreation centers that will reach 1,200 pre-school children and their caregivers from diverse and disadvantaged populations in Asheville and Buncombe County. One location will be Stephens-Lee recreation center, located in one of the city’s historically African-American communities.

Museum expansion

To better serve underserved, rural and low-wealth students throughout Western North Carolina through outreach activities, on-site programs and teacher-training opportunities, the Museum is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $24 million to renovate and expand its facilities, including doubling its education spaces.

With funds from the campaign, which already has raised $18.5 million, the Museum will have over twice the amount of studio classroom space, divided into two classrooms and accommodating larger class sizes and school groups, as well as multiple programs for different audiences at the same time.

By expanding its Literacy Through Art and Tot Time programs during the renovation and expansion of its facilities, the Museum can “learn from the diversity of our communities what our partnerships should look like going forward for the next generation,” Myers says.

A key question is “how can the Museum best serve this diversity of communities,” she says. “The Museum doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

The arts “spread everyone’s wings and open up a universe of inspiration, innovation and creativity that can affect every aspect of one’s life,” she says. “They provide a whole other way of opening up dialogue and discourse among people and individuals who interact with the creativity found in the arts.”

Arts momentum in Durham grows with arts directory, artist grants

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

DURHAM, N.C. — An online arts directory and continued investment in career development for emerging artists are the focus of a $25,000 grant to the Durham Arts Council that underscores Durham’s growing reputation as a hub for the arts.

With about two-thirds of the funds, from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, the Arts Council plans to develop and launch by late next summer an online directory of artists and arts organizations.

The Arts Council will use the remaining funds to support grants it has made each year to local artists since 1984, when it created a grant program for emerging artists that has become a model for counties throughout North Carolina.

“We are working to create opportunity for artists and arts groups to work collaboratively among themselves, to work across sectors, to apply for grants, to be more accessible, and to get the training they need,” says Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Arts Council.

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says the Arts Council is “helping to build Durham’s growing brand as a major arts center that attracts and connects artists, arts groups and visitors.”

The arts “inspire, and are helping to transform Durham into a stronger, more vibrant community,” she says.

The Foundation made the grant as part of the celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Arts catalyst

Formed in 1954, the Arts Council operates with an annual budget of $2.7 million, with 31 percent of it through the donation of goods and services, and a staff of 10 people working full-time and two working part-time. It raises about $1.3 million through its annual fund and special projects, with 57 percent of it from local, state and federal government sources.

The Arts Council serves 400,000 visitors and program participants a year, over 1,500 artists, and over 60 arts organizations through arts classes; artist residencies in schools; exhibitions; festivals; grant programs for arts organizations and artists; technical support and training; arts advocacy; creative economy initiatives such as research and development of an arts district; and information services.

Arts directory

Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Durham represent an economic engine: According to the most recent data, from five years ago, the combined economic impact of those organizations totals $125.5 million.

Connecting those organizations with one another, with the artists they depend on, with the public, and with anyone wanting to connect with the arts will be the focus of the new arts business directory that the Arts Council will develop with $17,000 from the Biddle Foundation grant.

Expected to be launched by late summer 2017 with an initial database of 300 artists and 80 arts organizations, the directory will be the only local, non-membership-based, publicly-accessible directory of artists and arts organizations in the Triangle.

The Arts Council has opted to use a database from Artsopolis selected by local arts councils in cities like Charlotte, Memphis, Houston and Fort Lauderdale. It will allow artists and arts groups to create their own profiles and keep them up to date, and for the general public to find them.

The Arts Council plans to promote the directory to the arts community, and provide orientation sessions on how to use it, along with help in uploading profiles. It also plans to promote the directory to the public and to specialized sectors once artists and arts groups have begun to create their profiles.

And the Arts Council will cross-link its directory with durhamculture.com, the arts calendar maintained by the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Emerging artist grants

Every year, based on over 110 applications it receives, the Arts Council awards 15 to 16 grants for mid-career development projects to individual arts in Durham, Chatham, Orange, Granville and Person counties.

Inspired by the late Durham philanthropists James and Mary Semans, founding trustees of the Biddle Foundation and launched in 1984 in partnership with the North Carolina Arts Council and the Foundation, the emerging artists grant program has awarded 500 grants totaling $553,000.

That grant program served as a model for the development of grant programs for local artists by local arts councils throughout the state in partnership with the state Arts Council.

Continuing its long-term support for the Durham emerging artists grant program, the Biddle Foundation this year again is contributing $8,000.

The artist grants represent our “belief and investment in individual artists,” says Margaret DeMott, director of artist services for the Arts Council.

The grants also provide recognition and validation that artists can use to secure other funding, and expand their range of opportunities and their networks of professional connections, she says.

Artists typically use the funds for needs ranging from attending conferences, buying materials and equipment, and conducting research to securing larger studio space, creating new art and increasing their visibility.

Arts capital

Building on its reputation for higher education, medicine and, more recently, food, Durham has long been a magnet for art and artists.

As Durham’s arts community continues to grow, the Arts Council is helping to spearhead initiatives designed to build that community and make it more accessible.

In partnership with Americans for the Arts, for example, it is just beginning a study — conducted every five years — of the local economic impact of the arts.

In cooperation with North Carolina Arts Council and City of Durham, it is working on the creation of an arts-and-entertainment corridor — a $10 million, 10-year initiative known as Durham SmArt — that will run south to north along Blackwell, Corcoran and Foster streets.

To begin to put the project into place, the Durham Arts Council last May was awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Arts Council is focusing “on building the reputation and excitement of Durham as an arts and cultural center,” DeVries says. “It’s our desire to create more recognition and more visibility for the arts sector as a whole.”

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.”

StudentU working to equip more Durham students to succeed

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

DURHAM, N.C. — Preparing more kids in Durham to graduate from high school, enroll in college and graduate, and then find ways to help other students succeed in school and life is the focus of a $25,000 grant to Durham nonprofit StudentU.

With the funds, from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, StudentU aims to double — to 30 — the number of college students it employs who work with middle-school students in its summer and year-long programs.

It also plans to double — to 40 — the number of internships it provides for high school students who work with middle- and other high-school students and at local nonprofits.

“We want to see a Durham where all kids can succeed,” says Dan Kimberg, founder and advancement director of StudentU. “We believe the way to get there is for our students to actually be the leaders who change the system.”

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says StudentU is preparing students to thrive.

“With support and encouragement,” she says, “students who face difficult odds in school and in life can believe in themselves, find a path to success, and give back by looking for ways to create greater opportunities for kids like themselves.”

The Foundation made the grant as part of the celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Preparing for college

Inspired by a summer job in New Orleans after his freshman year at Duke that paired college students with middle-school students, Kimberg founded StudentU after graduating from Duke in 2007.

Operating with an annual budget of $2.1 million, a staff of 18 people working full-time and up to 150 working part-time, StudentU is serving 450 students this year, a number that will grow to 500 in its new class that begins next March.

It works with students at all 18 middle schools and all 12 high schools in Durham, and partners mainly with students at Duke and North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

All public school students participating in StudentU begin in sixth grade, most qualify for school lunches that are free or at a reduced price, most are students of color, and most are the first in their families to go to college.

Among students who began StudentU in sixth grade, 110 currently are pursuing bachelors’ degrees, including a few who transferred after graduating from community college. In 2017 the first of those students will graduate from a four-year college.

School-year program

StudentU offers school-year and summer programs.

During the school year, 150 students in grades six, seven and eight participating in StudentU visit the W.G. Pearson Center five days a week after school for three hours a day. Learning specialists teach them literacy and math. Students also participate in dance, orchestra and arts clubs, and get help with homework.

About 190 students in grades nine through 12 participate in StudentU at their schools. StudentU hires and pays a stipend to teachers and guidance counselors already working at the schools who serve as advocates for the StudentU students in their schools.

Each advocate works with a group of four students who meet one-on-one with the advocate every week to make sure they are on track to graduate and enroll in college. And once a month, all the StudentU students and advocates in a school meet to talk about their progress and challenges they face.

During the school year, StudentU students visit about 15 colleges in North Carolina. Before applying to college, each StudentU student visits a total of about 35 colleges.

StudentU employs full-time college advisers who provide support through the application process to its high school juniors and seniors, along with their parents.

Summer program

During the summer, 150 middle-school students attend a six-week StudentU summer program at Durham Academy five days a week, eight hours a day, while 100 ninth-and-10th-graders attend a five-week summer academy and spend another week visiting six or seven out-of-state colleges with high rates of retention of students who are the first in their families to attend college.

And 90 11th-and-12th-graders hold StudentU internships, either at its campus, supporting the operations of its middle-school and high-school academies, or at local nonprofits.

Student support

StudentU employs a full-time social worker to help address the individual needs of students and families, and to manage health partnerships. The social worker works to make sure each student has a primary care doctor, helps arrange or directly provides psychological therapy for those who need it, and arranges for annual vision screening for each student, with those who need prescription eyeglasses getting a free pair.

StudentU also employs one full-time learning specialist who work directly with individual students with the greatest academic needs.

College students

StudentU employs college students to teach middle-school students. And it provides support for college students who began participating in StudentU in sixth grade.

Each semester, the full-time StudentU “college success coordinator” meets one-on-one on campus with each StudentU college student. And each August and winter break, StudentU students participate in a retreat that features experts who talk about key factors for college success, such as time management; getting the most from college advisers; racial identity at white institutions; and dealing with drugs, alcohol and sex on campus.

StudentU also makes gifts up to $500 per family to help keep their children from leaving college because of a financial emergency.

Parents’ role

The parent of every high-school student and middle-school student in StudentU receives a phone call at least every three weeks or two weeks, respectively, that focuses on the student’s progress and on what the organization can do to better support the family.

A parents council, known as Guardians for StudentU, works to support the StudentU staff, and the council head serves on StudentU’s board of directors.

Other communities

Twenty-three communities throughout the U.S. have asked StudentU to consider expanding to their communities. While it has declined because it wants to focus on Durham, it shares with them for free a 515-page document outlining how its programs work. This summer, based on that model, Gaston County in North Carolina launched a program starting with middle-school students.

Long-term goals

StudentU aims over the long-term to help students achieve educational success; gain the knowledge they need to achieve financial security as adults; make progress toward reaching their full personal potential; and become traditional and non-traditional leaders in Durham and other communities who are equipped to help make long-term systemic change happen.

Consider Casey Barr-Rios: She enrolled in StudentU as a sixth-grader and now is a junior at North Carolina Central University and the first person in her family to go to college. She also is the full-time executive assistant at StudentU, and a member of the board of directors of Made In Durham, a community partnership that aims to help Durham youth complete high school, get a post-secondary credential, and begin a rewarding career by age 25.

“As a result of structural racism and systemic inequalities, the odds are against students of color in the Durham Public Schools,” Kimberg says. “We want to see a Durham where all kids can succeed. We are helping students discover their best selves so they can change the system around them.”