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Music-Focused Charter School Proposed for Northern Manhattan

WHIN Music Project - Orchestrating Dreams Spring 2014
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WHIN Music Project

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The founder of a popular Uptown youth orchestra is hoping to expand his program’s reach by opening a charter school that will put music center stage.

David Gracia, founder of the WHIN Music Project, is applying to open a kindergarten through fifth-grade charter school that will offer students two hours of musical instruction each day, as well as integrating music into academic courses such as math.

He hopes to open the WHIN Music Community School somewhere in District 6 in fall 2016, beginning with kindergarten and first-grade classes, he said at a Community Board 12 meeting Monday night.

Gracia, who attended a music conservatory school in Spain where he grew up, said he wants to provide that life-changing experience for other children.

“My parents supported me in my music studies my whole life,” he said at the board's Youth and Education committee meeting. “They were working class and didn’t have much, but whenever I wanted to practice piano, they would do anything to help me. That’s what I want to give back.”

Gracia launched the WHIN Music Project in 2012, after spending a year studying El Sistema, a renowned music education program that caters to children in some of the most impoverished areas of Venezuela. The El Sistema model emphasizes both providing affordable musical instruction and creating a sense of community.

“Our program is not just to create musicians, but to provide a safe haven and expose children to a positive environment with good role models and peer mentors,” Gracia said at the meeting.

Since launching in 2012, the WHIN orchestra has grown from 50 to 150 students who meet at the United Palace once a week to rehearse. In addition, the program provides music instruction to students at Dos Puentes elementary school at Wadsworth Avenue and 182nd Street. They also launched pilot programs this school year in The Bronx, Brooklyn and East Harlem.

WHIN’s rapid success convinced Gracia of the need for a public school that offers free, high-quality music instruction, he said. He planned to submit a letter of intent Tuesday to the state Education Department, which grants charters for schools. If his letter is approved, the department will invite WHIN to submit a full application by March 20.

The WHIN Community Elementary School would be modeled after the Conservatory Lab Charter School near Boston, where teachers infuse music into academic curriculum and emphasize project-based learning, Gracia said.

Students would also receive two hours of dedicated music instruction each day. Gracia said that for the youngest students this would include voice and percussion, while older students would study instruments. The school's focus would be on orchestra and choir because of the community-building element they both offer, he explained.

“Those are ensembles, which make you feel you are a part of a family,” Gracia said. “The first violin is as important as the clarinet players. Both must understand that and work together in a deeper way.”

Because space is already tight in District 6, Gracia is looking to house the school in a private building, rather than co-locate with a public school, he said.

He also noted that school admissions would be based on a lottery rather than an application process to offer all students an equal chance. He does hope to offer some priority to students from District 6, he said.

“We work in this community because we really believe kids from this community need us,” he said. 

The plan has already gained support from the families who WHIN currently serves. Many community members who attended the Monday meeting were also in favor of the plan.  

Joel Joffie, a community member who volunteers with Chess in the Schools, said he only wished it could happen on a larger scale.

“They have taken away the arts in schools. They’ve taken music out,” he said. “Anything we can do to put it back, we should do.”