PNC launches $1M program to help Trenton preschoolers build vocab

By Cristina Rojas | For
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on October 17, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated October 17, 2015 at 10:05 AM

TRENTON — Children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by age 3. But the PNC Foundation is hoping to change that statistic in Trenton with a new $1 million, two-year initiative focused on building vocabulary.

The initiative is part of PNC's Grow Up Great, a $350 million, multi-year, bilingual initiative that began in 2004 to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life.

The grant represents PNC's single-largest investment in the capital city.

The "Trenton Makes—Words!" program, which launched Saturday, will be led by the New Jersey State Museum in collaboration with Children's Home Society of New Jersey and the Trenton Community Music School.

"It's all about the notion that children who are exposed to words very early on will ultimately do better in school," said Linda Bowden, PNC Bank New Jersey's regional president.

The State Museum has taken the lead on developing the programs. The museum will host weekly storytime groups, hands-on activities and learning sessions designed to teach families how to talk, read and play with their children, said Beth Cooper, curator of education.

Elsewhere in the city, the Children's Home Society and Trenton Community Music School will host "pop-up" events and eight citywide celebrations will feature activities and programs meant to strengthen reading and vocabulary skills.

Families will also be given resources and toys to help them continue the progress at home.

"It doesn't have to be formal things," Cooper said. "Taking time to play with children, talk with them about colors, what they're going to do that day, little ways throughout the day to verbally engage them."

Cooper said few Trenton families visit the museum and she is eager for more residents to explore what they have to offer.

The museum is starting a new program for Trenton families and will also be giving out passes that provides free admission and discounts to the planetarium and gift shop, she said.

"Our hope is that these families will stay engaged and think about returning even if we're not doing these family sessions," she said.

Bowden, who was an elementary school teacher, said she hopes the two-year initiative will not only help kids hit the ground running when they start school, but also encourage schools to continue exposing kids to strong vocabulary at an early age.

"If children have the opportunity to really blossom and learn if they're given the tools, given that head start, down the road that's going to make a huge difference in society," she said. "They may be inventors one day, start businesses. ... The education piece and whatever role we and other institutions in New Jersey can play in helping to bolster it is enormous."

Cristina Rojas may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CristinaRojasTT. Find The Times of Trenton on Facebook.

Princeton Area Community Foundation to support Trenton Community Music School’s new El Sistema Youth Orchestra Program with $25,000 grant

Trenton, NJ—Trenton Community Music School has received a welcome vote of confidence, and support of its fledgling El Sistema Trenton program, with the Princeton Area Community Foundation’s announcement that it will throw its weight behind the program with a grant of $25,000.

El Sistema Trenton began with a pilot program in February of this year, in partnership with the Trenton Board of Education and including 30 third graders at Grant Elementary School. This pilot was funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and with the support it has now received from PACF in addition the continued support of Dodge, it is slated to grow. Inspired by the renowned El Sistema model which originated in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela forty years ago and which currently serves more than 400,000 children throughout that country, El Sistema programs are built on a commitment to access and excellence, the image of teacher as citizen/artist/teacher/scholar, an intense rehearsal commitment and a multi-year continuum, the development of parent and community networks, and the use of orchestra and small ensemble to help convey the idea of working together and accomplishing great outcomes through cooperation. The El Sistema motto "luchar y tocar" ("to play and to strive") serves to help young people understand their role as an asset to their community.

Trenton Community Music School is working in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools to build an afterschool orchestra that provides a microcosm for social development. El Sistema Trenton also enjoys a warm and supportive relationship with the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance, which includes El Sistema-inspired organizations in Newark, Paterson, Camden, Union City and Orange, and which sponsored a collective performance by all of the participating organizations at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last June.

“We are so excited about partnering with the Trenton District to build a Trenton Youth Orchestra”, said Trenton Community Music School’s Community Partnerships Director, Ronnie Ragen. “Learning from the start to be an ensemble, the El Sistema model develops performing groups very quickly.”

“This El Sistema, after-school program is aligned with the district’s strategic plan to integrate the visual and performing arts throughout the curriculum”, explained Norberto Diaz, the Trenton District’s Fine and Performing Arts Supervisor. “We look forward to expanding the El Sistema program to other schools in the future.”

Trenton Community Music School shifts mission as executive director retires

By Jenna Pizzi | For

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on May 01, 2015 at 2:50 PM, updated May 01, 2015 at 2:51 PM


TRENTON – For the past 17 years the Trenton Community Music School has been offering individual music classes to students and offering scholarships to those who couldn't afford to pay. But at the end of next month the school's long-time executive director will retire and with her departure the school will shift its mission away from individual instruction.

Starting at the beginning of July, the school will focus primarily on its programs working within school districts, said Executive Director Marcia Wood.

"We are just changing our way of performing our mission," said Wood.

The change for the school is reflective of the change in demand from students, Wood said.

"We had many more students 10 years ago than we have now, so it is time to say 'Look, how can we best meet the needs of the Trenton community?'" Wood said.

The school currently has 35 students who meet individually with their instructors each week, down from 200 a decade ago, Wood said. Those students will work with their teachers to find another venue for their lessons if they wish to continue after next month, when the school stops offering individual lessons, Wood said.

77-year-old student Esther Snead, who has been taking flute lessons at the school for the last four years, she thinks the shift is unfortunate.

"I just hope that maybe that setup can be revived again," said Snead.

Christopher Fisher, whose two sons currently take classes at the school, the loss of lessons is a blow.

"I cant understand why parents, politicians and community leaders don't make sure that music is available for all kids," Fisher said.

Fisher said in school it can be hit or miss if students will have the exposure to music, but in individualized classes they can build the love for music, which can communicate to other things.

By focusing on in-school programs, Trenton Community Music School hopes to expand on the success of the Music for the Very Young, a music program for pre-school students, and the new El Sistema youth orchestra in Trenton schools to reach more students directly, Wood said, adding this reach is important for the school to obtain more funding, too.

"For our funders it is a matter of where are they going to get the most bang for their buck and if we can reach fifteen with one teacher, rather than one student with one teacher, than obviously it makes more sense for us to do that," Wood said.

Wood said the board of directors has not yet named a new executive director to replace her. She added that she would stay involved in the school, which she helped to found in 1998, assisting with fundraising efforts.

"I think for the future of the school it should change," she said. "It is time for somebody else's ideas and somebody else's energy."

Jenna Pizzi may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JennaPizzi. Find The Times of Trenton on Facebook.

Building community through music: El Sistema program grows at Trenton's Grant Elementary School

El Sistema music program at Grant Elementary School in Trenton El Sistema music program at Grant Elementary School in Trenton. The Trenton Public Schools and the Trenton Community Music School are collaborating to create a Youth Orchestra at Grant School inspired by the El Sistema program which began forty years ago in Venezuela. (Michael Mancuso | Times of Trenton)

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By Jenna Pizzi | For
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on February 16, 2015 at 9:38 AM, updated February 17, 2015 at 11:19 AM



TRENTON - With brightly colored tape guiding their way from note to note, an orchestra of 15 students from Grant Elementary School in Trenton powered through the string solo of the 80s hit song "Forever Young."

The students, who are among youngsters at Grant Elementary provided violins and violas just four months ago as part of the new El Sistema program, were preparing for their big debut at an upcoming Trenton school board meeting.

"It is their motivation," said Barrington Brown, the music teacher and conductor of the student orchestra. "They feed off of each other."

El Sistema is a community music program that provides the opportunity for children to learn to work together by playing ensemble music.

In Trenton, the program is split between an in-school and after-school group, totaling 100 students at Grant Elementary. Ronnie Ragen, community partnerships director at the Trenton Community Music School, said the the program aims to build community and improve achievement.

"It is very much a youth development program that uses music to the best advantage of children," Ragen said.

The concept was created in Venezuela in 1975 and changed the lives of thousands of needy children. El Sistema has since spread worldwide.

The Trenton Community Music School has been raising funds to expand the program and partner with the school district.

The after-school portion of the program, which was made possible by those initial donations, starts Tuesday and will welcome 30 students from Grant Elementary three days a week.

The program is offered for free to students and the instruments are funded through the VH1 Save the Music Foundation. If successful, school district officials said they hopes to continue the program and expand El Sistema to other district schools.

Ragen said the goal is to build a district-wide youth symphony orchestra, but that will require a strong commitment from students and parents. If a student leaves the program early or only attends when it is convenient for parents, the program falters, Ragen said.

"It erodes everybody's experience," Ragen said. "So we are building that and we are counting on families to be a part of this, too."

In just the first few months, Brown said he has seen how students have begun to work together to learn the instruments that were once foreign to them.

"You will see a group of kids working in the corner as I am helping someone else," Brown said. "It is developing leaders."

Brown pinpoints two reasons for the success of his students - a bit of friendly competition and drive.

"They are determined," he said. "They are very determined."

The program is funded by donations from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, The Community Foundation of NJ, the D'Addario Foundation, The Albin Family Foundation and private donors.

Trenton senior citizens, preschoolers meet weekly for music lessons

By Amy Reynolds

TRENTON — A circle of senior citizens and about 30 preschoolers took shape Thursday morning at the Sam Naples Senior Center gymnasium, and then music teacher Joyce Kay pulled out her guitar and led them in a chorus of singing: “Hello, everybody! So glad to see you!”

Such a gathering has become a regular Thursday event at the senior center. Organizers say it helps young children get accustomed to seniors, and the seniors greatly benefit from the weekly music lessons as well.

“It brings out the inner kid in the senior citizens when the children come here,” said Doris Oglesby, director of senior citizen activities at Sam Naples.

Every Thursday, the class of 4-year-olds from the Stepping Stones Learning Institute walks to the senior center for their weekly music lesson, under the Music for the Very Young Program, facilitated by the Trenton Community Music School.

This morning, the class of 3-year-olds joined them as well to celebrate Older Americans Month and the end of the school year.

“It’s really a lot of fun,” said Florence Neeld, a senior who goes to Sam Naples three days a week. “When they have dances here, they call me the dancing machine.”

Stepping Stones has been working with the music school for about 12 years, with a short hiatus a few years ago, Denise Picerno, administrative director for Stepping Stones, said.

“Since the first day, (the kids) were so excited to come and sing and dance with the seniors,” she said. “They can’t stop talking about it when they get back to school.”

Two other preschools in the area, CYO preschool and Trenton Head Start, have similar programs, partnering with South Ward Senior Citizen Center and Reading Senior Center, respectively.

“Everybody talks about partnerships and this has allowed many agencies to collaborate in a positive way,” Trenton Community Music School community partnerships director Ronnie Ragen said.

Before this year’s program started in October, Ragen said, many of the preschoolers were shy and nervous about performing at the senior center. “Part of the objective is to make (the kids) comfortable in the community,” she said, stating that many of the kids are now more comfortable interacting with the seniors.

Ragen said that the senior citizens really look forward to Thursdays, and senior Harvey Moses would agree.

“I think the program is terrific,” he said. “For young kids, you couldn’t want anything better.”

Music for the Young and Young at Heart: Intergenerational Program Provides More Than Just Music

(Reprinted with permission from Renaissance Magazine, February-March 2012)

“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.” George Eliot

The Music for the Very Young: Music, Movement and Literacy (MVY) program has been provided in preschool classes across Trenton since 2000. It was developed by the Trenton Community Music School (TCMS) in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools and Music Together, LLC (based in Hopewell). The program is an extension of TCMS, where music lessons and classes are available to anyone regardless of experience level, age, income, or background. Each year they serve about 25 community preschool classes with the MVY program. CDs and songbooks go home with each child to involve whole families in the music making.

The TCMS’s Music for the Very Young (MVY) program has expanded to include “Music for the Young at Heart”, an Intergenerational music class involving local seniors. The pilot program started last year at the South Ward Senior Center.  On a weekly basis, children who are enrolled in the Mercer County CYO Preschool in Trenton join the seniors of the South Ward Senior Center for intergenerational music and movement classes. 

The classes are run by the TCMS in partnership with the Mercer County CYO Preschool, Trenton Board of Education’s Office of Early Childhood, and the City of Trenton’s Office on Aging.  TCMS Program Director, Ronnie Ragen, notes “When I discovered that the senior center was just half a block from the CYO preschool, I knew I’d found the perfect setting to start an Intergenerational version of our program.” 

The MVY program uses a curriculum developed by the Center for Music and Young Children, originators of the Music Together program. It includes a songbook and CD, and a specially trained instructor who comes to visit the preschool once a week to perform the songs with the kids and the preschool teacher. During the class they use scarves, instruments and gestures that go along with the songs. The program is designed to not only provide music education to the preschool children, but to also influence the children’s movement and literacy development. Throughout the different songs the children are learning words and also learning to work together as a group. They are also learning about things like tempo and beat while dancing and having fun. The instructor uses different instruments as well, such as a tambourine and shakers. This is fun not only for the children, but also for the newly involved seniors.

The seniors look forward to the weekly visits from the children, so much so that if they see the preschool staff on the street, they tell them that they can’t wait until class day. Likewise, the students at the preschool often ask their teachers if it is the day to go to the senior center. Many of the children took to calling the seniors “grandmom” or “pop-pop,” which they did not mind. One senior, John Jacobs, told me he felt the children were a blessing. The children come in and participate in their music class, in a circle on the floor and the seniors sit in chairs behind them and are included in all the singing, dancing and instrument playing.

Another senior, John Cameron, told me he played the tambourine with the kids, and that he thought that the children really appreciated the interactions. He told me a story about a day when the children were lining up to leave, that one young man got out of line to come over and shake his hand as he sat watching them leave. This spontaneous moment struck Ronnie Ragen so much that she made them recreate the scene so she could get a photo of it. Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Cameron were so fond of the children that they went to the graduation ceremony at the preschool. Both men are part of the regular crowd at the South Ward Senior Center and visit almost every day. Mr. Jacobs is an artist and much of his work is displayed at the center. In anticipation of the new students coming for music classes, he made a collage to welcome them.

“Every Senior Center should have a program like this. It wakes up the senses, gives us energy from the children and the music,” said Mr. Jacobs. And his opinion was shared by the staff at the preschool. Keisha Owens-Coleman, the teacher who was involved with the pilot program at the senior center, also told me she thought the program should be expanded. “It gives so much to both the children and the seniors,” Ms. Owens-Coleman commented. She found that the children made the seniors happy, helped with feelings of depression, and that it was great for the children to be exposed to another generation. Preschool director, Donna Zolnierzak told me that some of the children do not have grandparents nearby, and Music for the Young at Heart is a great way for the children to interact with a grandparent figure.

Music can provide so many benefits to us in our lives. In this instance it is bringing together children and older adults, showing each what the other has to offer.