After-school music program gives underserved teens in Chester a voice

John McDevitt
December 10, 2019 - 4:07 pm
Chester Children’s Chorus

Courtesy of Swarthmore College

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CHESTER, Pa. (KYW Newsradio) — For some teens and children in Delaware County, being a part of the Chester Children’s Chorus is much more than a choir.

“It's way more,” said 17-year-old Shamir Bryant. “It's an outlet for us.”

The program gives more than 100 underserved kids and teens in Chester a chance to have a voice and learn music in a safe, supportive space.

“We get to come together, talk, laugh, have fun,” added Bryant, who joined the chorus as a soprano several years ago and worked his way down to a bass. “Music is a gateway or an outlet for a lot of children, a lot of other young people. I feel that music helps a lot.”

Nearly 40% of Chester residents live below the poverty line. Nationally, gaps in music education at public schools have grown. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, about one in six eighth-graders said they did not have a full-time music specialist. For black and Latino students, it was about one in five.

John Alston founded the Chester Children’s Chorus 25 years ago — well before his young prodigies were even born — and still leads the choir, which is supported by Swarthmore College.

Alston joined Swarthmore’s faculty in 1990. But in 2017, he gave up his tenured position to focus full-time on the chorus — fundraising, conducting, writing, and serving as a role model for the students.

“Often the news about Chester is not good, and what we want is the opportunity to show folks that our children are beautiful too; that when they are given the right combination of love and respect and high expectations, that they can do beautiful things just like all of the other children that are doing wonderful things in the United States,” said Alston.

Chester Children’s Chorus founder John Alston
Courtesy of Chester Children’s Chorus

In addition to formal music instruction, the regimented program gives kids the opportunity to study math one-on-one with a Swarthmore student twice a week. 

During the school year, kids attend at least two rehearsals each week, leading up to live performances. 

"We meet after school Monday through Thursday, and then all day on Saturday,” Alston said. “On Saturday, we drive to all 110 homes and we pick up all of our children and bring them here.”

The young singers are hard at work for their upcoming winter concerts on Friday and Saturday, which are open to the public at Swarthmore.

"They're singing such beautiful and sophisticated music, and a lot of folks that have heard about Chester might not think that the Chester Children's Chorus can sing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’  but they do,” Alston enthused, “and they love it, man.”