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Honors For Two City Groups, and a Visit With the First Lady

Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - 04:01 PM

Two New York City organizations received the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the first lady, Michelle Obama, at a White House ceremony on Wednesday: the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and the Saturday Academies of American History at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Directed by Francisco J. Nuñez, a recipient of the 2011 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur genius grant, 12 students from the Young People’s Chorus will perform Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” at the ceremony. (The ceremony was streamed live on the White House’s Web site at 2:30 p.m.)

"Receiving this prestigious award makes our young people know that they are part of a great program that is benefiting so many other children,” Mr. Nuñez said in an interview before the White House event. “At a time of severe cutbacks in arts education, here is the White House saying, 'This is important.'"

The $10,000 awards are a part of the continued efforts of President Barack Obama’s administration to stress the importance of arts and humanities education in schools across America.

In May, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities issued “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,” a report on how arts education positively influences students. The report says that low-income students in arts programs are more likely to stay in school, get good grades, graduate and enroll in college.

One hundred percent of the participants in the Youth People’s Chorus graduate from high school, and many of them are the first in their families to go to college, the organization says.

The second group to be honored, the Saturday Academies of American History at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, is part of a national effort to provide Saturday classes to students, to enrich and improve learning. Last year, more than 4,000 middle school and high school students enrolled in the free, elective courses through the Saturday Academies across the nation.

In New York City, 10 schools and organizations offer courses in the histories of America, music, United States energy and sports, as well as SAT and advanced placement test preparation classes.

Teenagers from each of the organizations will accept the awards from Mrs. Obama.

Stephan Douglas-Allen, a sophomore at Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change in Manhattan, was chosen to accept the award on behalf of the Youth People’s Chorus. Mr. Nuñez met Stephan at the 92nd Street Y, and remembers that he was a “little boy who could sing like nobody’s business.” Since then, he has led the Young Men’s Chorus in performances across the world. Watch as they perform in Japan.

“I don’t know where I would be without the chorus. It’s pretty much my second family,” Stephan, 16, said. “I believe my time in Y.P.C. is an amazing preparation for facing life and its challenges, especially as I get ready for college.”

It has been a busy couple of months for Mr. Nuñez and the Young People’s Chorus. He was named a 2011 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellow in late September and will receive $500,000 over the next five years. This weekend, the Young People’s Chorus returned from the Dominican Republic after performing for that nation’s first lady.

“What’s unique about the chorus is that it’s not just under served kids,” Mr. Nuñez said. “It’s a culture shock for both sides. But when kids interact with kids from different social classes and racial backgrounds, it makes a bigger impact on them.”

Mr. Nuñez said he knows from his own experience. He was raised by a single mother in Washington Heights and wasn’t interested in the same things as the other children on his block. He fell in love with music and began competing and playing concerts across the city, meeting kids from different backgrounds along the way.

“Kids coming from inner-city communities often have very little voice,” he said. “The arts can give them that vehicle of communication.”

James G. Basker, president of the Saturday Academies at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, describes his program as a way to “lift the ceiling” for students in inner cities.

Robert B. Sandoval, who will accept the award on behalf of the Saturday Academies, is a senior at the private All Hallows Institute in the Bronx. He has already reaped the rewards of going to school on the weekend: he received 3 out of 5 points on the AP U.S. history test and 4 out of 5 points on the AP world history test, which could qualify him to receive college credit. He has applied to Columbia University and Stony Brook University on Long Island, he said.

“My family went through a lot when I was young,” said Robert, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines. “I’m taking every opportunity I can to work hard and do good. I want to make them proud.”

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