Next fall, Chester will have a new magnet school, the Chester-Upland School for the Arts.
The school is growing out of Music Professor John Alston’s Chester Children’s Chorus, a music program which takes seventy-five children from Chester and teaches them to sing. Alston will give up the bulk of his work at the College, and devote himself to the school. “I’ll be whatever [the school leaders] want,” he said emphatically—”Even if it means I have to be a janitor.”
The project is ambitious. Alston plans to start with eighty students, four grades (pre K-2) and eight teachers, rivaling Swarthmore’s teacher-student ratio. “There will be a developed after school program,” he added “including sports like basketball—and fencing and chess.”
Parents who want to send their children to the school will have to sign a contract and agree to read to their children, enforce a reasonable bedtime, and to turn off the television for at least a few hours every night.
“It is all about creating a social culture, building from the bottom up,” explained Alston. Eventually he envisions older and more experienced students and parents imparting wisdom to newcomers.
The program is moving forward with the strong support of Chester’s superintendent, Gregory Thornton. “He is a superintendent of change,” said Alston. Thornton’s support and the succession of grants won by the school have accelerated the project. A nation-wide search is occurring to find the school’s future principal., and the school already has a home in Chester’s Parry Building, directly across the street from Chester High. “It is only missing an auditorium,” Alston said with a sigh.
Not all community members are so certain the school is a great idea. Several Chester residents, all of whom declined to be quoted, expressed reservations about more outsiders coming into the city.
Chester has had a long history of disastrous adventures in education. Most recently, the school district went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. Earlier, Edison Schools, a for-profit education company, was given control of the district—until test scores dropped dramatically in all of the schools.
Alston wouldn’t describe himself as an outsider from Chester, however. “I came in fourteen years and,” he remarked. “And I’m still here. I’m not going to leave.”