This video report was produced by Swarthmore College student Jiallian Smith, including interviews with CUSA’s founder, John Alston, and former CUSA principal Dr. Corinne Ryan.
In 1994, Associate Professor of Music John Alston founded the Chester Children’s Chorus with the hope it would imbue young people with the joy of learning through music and performance. His efforts to expand upon the successful model of the Chorus culminated this fall with the opening of the Chester Upland School of the Arts. Students there, currently in pre-K to second grade, are immersed in a curriculum that combines rigorous academics with music, dance, and visual arts.
From the beginning, Alston has worked closely with Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge ’61 to make the chorus, and now the school, a reality. Eldridge, a lifelong educator, says both projects represent community building at its best.
In 1994, John Alston, an Associate Professor of Music at Swarthmore College, founded the Chester Children’s Chorus. The program aims to “use music as a vehicle to offer children who live in the Chester-Upland School District the opportunity to expand their intellectual and cultural horizons and strengthen their life skills”. Working with the children in the chorus motivated Alston to increase his involvement and help to provide the children with a school that would allow them “to have the same opportunities as the most affluent and privilidged children in the United States.”
To achieve this goal, Alston founded The Chester Fund for Education and the Arts in 2008, forming a public-private partnership with the Chester Upland School District through a private contract, or Memorandum of Understanding. The contract made the district responsible for providing basic public school allocation for the facility, transportation, and building staff, while The Chester Fund provides remaining components, including private funds for arts and technology programming, teaching assistants in every grade, and an extended-day program for the older children.
Each student is provided with experiences in the arts that are age-appropriate and have cross-curricular connections to the areas of literacy, math, science, history, motor skills, social interaction and cultural context.
CUSA is the only elementary school in the Chester Upland School District with a full-time music teacher, dance teacher and visual arts teacher on faculty. Working in tandem with homeroom teachers, the arts teachers tailor lesson plans to supplement and reinforce what the children are learning in their classrooms.
- Music class serves as a vehicle for complex understandings of interrelated parts, providing a framework for enriching musical experiences and encouraging creative and critical thinking in all facets of their lives. Students attend music classes geared to their grade level, and, twice a week, all students and teachers attend Dr. Alston’s well-loved “Afternoon Sing” program. Most of the songs are written especially for the children by Dr. Alston to playfully introduce foreign language, math concepts and literacy lessons and reinforce positive behaviors, such as courtesy and cooperation.
- Dance classes are conducted in the school’s own dance studio, which is outfitted with a mirrored wall, ballet bars, specialized studio flooring and a sound system. Dance provides children with an introduction to the concept of exercise and an introduction to body parts and how they move. Emphasis is placed on developing coordination and reinforcing developmental patterns. Dance gives the children the chance to “be seen,” to be imaginative and to develop self-confidence, incorporating lessons many educated adults take for granted: how to handle one’s body in the world, how to stand or to allow others appropriate room, how to fit into the culture of mutual space and explore exercise in new, healthy and constructive ways. Yoga introduces the children to the concepts of body awareness and mind/body health, and it provides them with the skills necessary to self-calm.
- Visual Arts classes help children become attuned to the world around them, sparking and broadening children’s imaginations and fostering their sense of self through artistic expression. Students learn to view the world as a place filled with possibilities, where they can explore their own vision regardless of ability or socioeconomic status. Because reading is a visual process, these arts classes are also vital to our students’ development as readers. CUSA’s visual arts program nurtures and encourages each child’s path to connecting with others and thinking creatively while building a growing sense of self-esteem.
CUSA students are in school more hours of the day than other students in the district. Students in 2nd grade and beyond participate in a mandatory extended-day program geared toward supplementing and reinforcing the school-day curriculum. The extended-day program takes place from 3:30 to 5:30 four afternoons per week. Students receive tutoring and help with homework; engage in learning activities, including math and chess clubs and the school newspaper; and participate in studio arts, dance and music projects. The program is a hallmark of CUSA and it, too, is made possible by TCF. The Extended School-Day Program is not offered in any of the other district elementary schools.
Code of Conduct
CUSA operates according to a code of conduct, which is emphasized in every aspect of the school’s organization and academic program.
During the Summer of 2011, CUSA was strongly affected by massive reductions in the school district budget as a result of the state government’s cuts in education funding. Due to these cuts, CUSA has had to make many changes that Alston and other administration feel have compromised the CUSA’s goals. The decision was made to terminate the Chester Fund partnership as of June 2012 and apply to open a charter school.
“We deeply appreciate the partnership we’ve had with the district over the last three years, but also realize that to continue educating Chester children, we have to be able to design our own programs and hire and keep the best teachers,” said TCF and CUSA founder Dr. John Alston. “The only way to accomplish this is to apply for a charter.” “The children’s education must come first,” added Maurice Eldridge, TCF Board Chair. “We are saddened by what has happened, but we are excited about our future charter school.”
The new charter school, to be called the Chester Charter School for the Arts, is scheduled to open in September 2012 pending approval of the charter application. The school will welcome students in grades K-6, and any child in the district will be eligible to attend.