Monday, June 18, 2012

New Journey: To an Orchestra Committed To Making Connections

I am thrilled to start my new position as the Director of Education at the Orchestra of St. Luke's today. In this role, I'll be working with a wonderful team to strategize and implement programs that connect the orchestra deeply with its community.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's began as a chamber ensemble that met in Greenwich Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields. It now presents an annual chamber music series, as well as full orchestral concerts, and diverse community and education programs. (And they have a really cool membership program if you're 45 years old or younger. Check it out here.)

I look forward to joining this dynamic organization, and to sharing the process of developing the education programs, so stay tuned!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Findings from the First National Needs Assessment of El Sistema-Inspired Programs (by Ben Fuller and Jennifer Kessler)

Preface: A slightly shorter version of this article was initially written by Ben Fuller and myself and published in the June issue of The Ensemble, a newsletter for the U.S. El Sistema Movement, co-edited by Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall. For more information on The Ensemble, please write: 

El Sistema Needs Assessment: The Data and What It All Means

Back in January, the 2012 Sistema Fellows surveyed self-identified El Sistema-inspired programs across the country for the first-ever National Needs Assessment. As a collaborative project by the New England Conservatory, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Longy School of Music, the National Needs Assessment sought to identify every El Sistema-inspired program in the U.S., collect basic information and quantitative data for every program, and identify successes, challenges, and needs of U.S. programs in order to give clarity and direction for the movement going forward.  The information gathered in countless hours speaking with program directors is a September 2011-January 2012 snapshot, representing a broad overview that is neither comprehensive nor perfectly accurate. We hope you'll look at this data as a launching pad to further questions around what we need to be successful in our work.

Basic Facts
  • Approximately 7,000 students in 54 programs
  • 54 programs with 91 sites (second sites are most often started in organizations 3+ years old)
  • 9 hours of instruction/week on average (information on how many weeks per year was not obtained)
  • Serving students from ages 2 to 17 (predominantly elementary-school aged)
  • $1,800/child average expenditure
  • 16 programs in the Northeast, 13 in California, 10 in the South, 9 in the Midwest, 6 in the West
  • Sites include: 48 public schools (in or after-school not indicated), 18 community centers, 5 charter schools, 2 Churches, 2 Boys and Girls Clubs,1 Catholic private school, library
The Juicier Information

Programs overwhelmingly stated youth development, community development, music, and access as core values of their missions. Descriptions of the biggest successes of programs reflected their core values: 41% of program directors cited youth development, 32% cited musical growth, and 27% cited community development.

The most frequently cited “biggest challenges” were financial sustainability and funding (organizations with budgets greater than $500K listed “growth” as their greatest challenge). Almost all programs reported issues related to hiring qualified teaching artists and guiding them to implement the vision of the program.

What are the three greatest challenges that program directors believe teaching artists face in the classroom daily? 68% reported classroom management, 19% reported student attendance, and 13% reported teaching to mixed abilities.

There were mixed responses regarding type and amount of parental support, which included parents volunteering to organize events, serve as chaperones, and in some cases, serve on parental network committees. 61% of programs reported strong parental involvement, 24% reported some parental involvement, and 15% reported no parental involvement. Most organizations feel that the relationships with parents and families are excellent, and parental roles seem to mature as organizations grow.

Across all budget and years-in-service groups, program directors feel that the top key skills their students are learning are musicianship, discipline, self-esteem, and teamwork.

However, we were interested to discover this: most programs are not evaluating anything.
Programs that are evaluating tend to be focusing on musical evaluation. We wondered how programs know the skills that their students are taking away if they aren't evaluating the non-musical skills.

Cost per child: Based on a $230,000 average, $1811 per child. This is under the average recommended by the Wallace Foundation. It does not take number of sites, years in service, or weeks per year into consideration, and we know that several organizations are operating on a budget that suggests that there is no paid staff ($700- $15,000). Instead of $1800/per student being a number we should strive for, it could instead raise questions about what these numbers mean. In thinking about sustainability of organizations (particularly human resources), how can we shift from figuring out how little we can spend on cost per child to considering which elements are essential components for our programs' success and longevity, and what the long-term return on investment is for our programs?


Some principal findings of our survey are that evaluation and funding are really important, and that sharing resources such as repertoire, teacher training, and best hiring practices would be helpful to most programs. Perhaps more important than our findings are the questions raised. Why are we mainly in schools? Why are we mainly serving elementary-school children? When do we expand, and why? As Beth Babcock says, “Bigger is not necessarily better; better is better.”

While we were not surprised by most of the findings, we were interested to note that most of the challenges that El Sistema-inspired programs face are the same challenges that any other arts organization faces with arts education programs: recruiting and training teaching artists, supporting teaching artists in their work, meeting community needs, and fundraising. One major difference seems to be that El Sistema-inspired programs are - on the whole - rarely evaluating their musical and social outcomes, while many arts education programs are steeped in evaluation and assessment processes, so much so that it's possible to lose sight of what all of the documentation could be used for.

In terms of the social goals of our programs, what are the best ways to measure the outcomes of our work, in relation to the youth and community development values we all share? Here, we can look to assessment processes that the social sector has used successfully, such as the Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale (CAFAS) Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS), and the Child Behavior Checklist. We are at the beginning of our journey toward understanding how to fulfill our mission to make a difference in the lives of children.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ruminations on the end of journey

On May 18, 2012, the Sistema Fellows graduated from an extraordinary year of delving not only into El Sistema, but into what it means to be a strong teacher, learner, colleague, and leader. Between the last post and today, we've been through a great deal, both as a group and individually. We finished an extensive business plan as a team as a consultant project for an emerging El Sistema program. It was a long and very intense process, that resulted in many people staying in the offices until very late at night for days on end. But what we created was a thoroughly researched and in-depth document, complete with a theory of change and logic model, a program design, and funding and marketing plans that can be a launch pad for action.

Some of us went to Chicago in April for the Drafting Convention of the new association/alliance/network of El Sistema-inspired programs. We spent two days in small groups exploring what by-laws might be appropriate for such an organization, what the role of an Executive Director would look like, and what the short and long term goals of the organization would ideally be. We discussed the hot topic of the name El Sistema USA, and after much debate, eventually agreed that we should consider other names, for many reasons. Now, small subcommittees are working on their action items, and if all goes well, an association could be born very soon. For all of the minutes from that meeting and the preceding phone calls, visit:

Individually, people worked feverishly to launch their non-profits or get a job, while working on a final presentation of their program designs. Regarding the latter, we each gave a 1 hour + presentation on a topic of our choice to the other fellows, staff at NEC, members of the Sistema Fellows Friends Committee, and others. Topics included plans for the new programs, a workshop session on how to make the "ask" for money for a non-profit, and team-building best practices. I led a workshop session on funding, to share my findings from a funding research project I did in the fall (on the priorities of major grantmakers to programs with similar missions to El Sistema), and to brainstorm with everyone around an idea I'd had to launch a site that broadens the donor base to El Sistema-inspired programs. Once I update it a bit, I'll post the Power Point from that session.

After Venezuela, the weeks flew by quickly. We had a final session with Eric Booth to reflect on the year (where we drew what our year looked like, reminding me of the posters my friends and I would make in the 3rd and 4th grade of stories about our classmates); our final session with Beth Babcock, our strategy guru; a class on negotiation with Dr. Jeffrey Prottas; a course on marketing and branding with Chris Colbert of Holland-Mark; classes on interviewing and leadership with President Tony Woodcock; a session on leadership with the luminary Hubie Jones, founder of the Boston Children's Chorus; and a workshop on how we bring our perceptions of race and ethnicity to our roles as teachers and leaders, with the amazing Eder Williams of City Term and Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy. With each of these sessions, I left feeling enlightened; I had learned something that either challenged the way I saw the world, or introduced me to an entirely new concept that I had never before considered.

Graduation was beautiful. Dozens of friends and family members gathered at NEC, while we each stood up and shared a story about the year. I haven't been to many graduations, but this was by far the best: intimate and meaningful, minus the platitudes.

While most of us agreed it was time to move on, I do have to admit that as happy as I was to come back to New York City, I did feel an emptiness the first couple of days back. I mean, how often is it in life that you can completely indulge - every single day for 9 months - in sharing ideas and taking action on a topic you're deeply passionate about, with 9 other people and a host of experts in various fields? Thank you, New England Conservatory and everyone who was involved in making this possible, possible.

This is the slideshow that was playing as people walked into graduation. It may not mean much if you weren't a fellow, but I hope it will serve as an invitation into the world of 10 people who went on a journey of Sistema this year.