Arreon Harley is the Director of Music and Operations for the Choir School of Delaware, a nonprofit after-school program that focuses on music and mentoring. Arreon has an impressive musical background, but where he really shines is his ability to build and cultivate relationships inside the Choir School and with the surrounding community. We sat down with Arreon to find out what’s behind the incredible impact he’s made.
About the Choir School of Delaware
The Choir School equips at-risk grade school and high school students with the life skills they need to succeed. Students from more than 25 schools in Delaware and Pennsylvania are treated as professional musicians; they take piano and voice lessons, rehearse with the choir several times per week, and sing in more than 40 performances per year. Students are also required to participate in the after school homework program and to maintain a GPA of at least 2.5.
The Choir School works closely with teachers and community organizations to achieve a 100% high school graduation rate, and to create opportunities for first-generation college students.
Learn more at https://choirschoolofdelaware.org.
Transformative Intergenerational Relationships
The Choir School creates an environment that consistently produces academically successful students. We set out to understand what makes their environment so special.
What differentiates the Choir School from other after school programs?
“We are an intergenerational community. When we look to the natural world, you would never see a baby elephant by itself. You see a line of elephants and the little ones are trailing behind, and their trunks are attached to the tails of the next larger elephants. We see that throughout the animal kingdom. But when it comes to education… we have one adult and a community of students. Education has not changed since the prairie days.
Our philosophy [at the Choir School] is having a community that involves both students and adults throughout their entire experience. From the time they come in there are adults working alongside them [on homework] and singing alongside of them in the choir. That modeling is important. That relationship building is important.
No students join the choir school—only families. A student can’t be successful on his or her own. It takes parental involvement. [Our program] is intergenerational, and that needs to be modeled at home.”
Do you have examples of students who have seen benefits from these intergenerational relationships beyond the Choir School?
“Most mentors attend their mentee’s high school graduation, then help move the kids in [to college]. I’ve seen mentees stay in contact through college, looking for jobs, needing a basement to stay in while looking for a job. And that happens on a regular basis. I know of mentors who have formally adopted kids in this program. Some pretty incredible stories.”
These are the kinds of bonds that produce social capital. As relationships strengthen, so does the scope of available support. This is a result of repeated social interaction within a context of shared values—the same process that creates strong familial bonds.
Resources Embedded in the Community
Choir School students have access to a network of resources within the community. We wanted to understand how Arreon has cultivated that network.
What kind of community resources do Choir School students and families use?
“The Choir School is a conduit for resources. We are bringing resources here and connecting people with resources, and we have a lot of partnerships throughout the state and city to make that happen.
We partner with Delaware College Scholars [for first-generation college students]… people who help with financial aid… health partners who make sure kids have glasses… the Food Bank of Delaware and the City of Wilmington [for students with food insecurity]… Delmarva Power talks to parents about how to manage their power bill.”
How did you cultivate that network of community resources?
“When I was brought on board… I realized we were in the [Wilmington, Delaware] community but not a part of the community. There was no way this organization would continue to do its good work without more funding and more relationships outside the small, close-knit [Choir School] community.
We began pursuing funding opportunities through the Delaware Division of the Arts. We started joining associations like Connecting Generations, which is a mentoring coop and partnership. We started talking to our after school cohort which includes Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA of Delaware and Pegasus.”
As the Choir School became a part of the Wilmington, Delaware community, people began to connect the organization with others whose missions intersected.
“People said to us, ‘You’re not getting food from the Food Bank of Delaware? You need to be doing that… they want to feed the hungry, you have the hungry, and your students are not going to be able to achieve their music and academic goals if they are hungry monsters at 3:00.'”
The Choir School maximizes social capital by developing both bonding and bridging relationships. Arreon proudly stated, “People who support the program are here for life.” The Choir School fosters these bonding relationships by building a tight-knit community of donors and volunteers who can see the measurable impact they are having on the students and who can identify with the values of the program. Arreon led the charge of developing bridging relationships with other programs in Wilmington and the state of Delaware by starting conversations and identifying shared goals with other organizations.
The Power of a Connected Board of Directors
How do you promote your mission for fundraising?
“A few years ago, I ditched the term fundraising. We call it friendraising.
The biggest mistake I see arts organizations make is saying that we had a successful concert because we sold this many tickets which equaled this revenue. That’s never going to be sustainable. You’re always going to be constrained by the size of the space or [program preferences.]
[Instead, we make the focus of our events] to cultivate relationships and build friendships. Come to an event, and you don’t have to give me a penny because your time [and interest] is more valuable. Help me understand which part of the program made you say yes.
Not everyone comes to our concerts because they like Handel… in fact most people don’t! They come to our events because they see the impact Handel has made on a child. We make a concerted effort to do friendraising activities throughout the year. We want to have a conversation.”
Arreon considers friendraising a better philosophy for doing fundraising. He stated the obvious that “there’s a direct correlation between how many friends we have and how much we have in the bank.”
Do you have any examples of when relationships from friendraising extended beyond dollars?
“There is a local car dealership. We heard [the owner] had some interest in the arts. We were courting him for a long time, and it was somewhat successful. One day the choir school van broke down and we needed a new van. How willing he was to get us the van that we needed. I’m grateful he didn’t give us $10k because the value of the van is significantly greater. [Transportation is] the lifeline of our program. If we can’t get the kids here, we don’t have a program.
We have a board member who was a former Chief Justice of Delaware. He has opened up so many doors for us. Even just [being able to say] ‘can we have a conversation with you?’ and someone is willing to pick up the phone. We have a good story to tell, we have great data, we have great kids. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone is willing to answer the call.
This happens ALL the time. That’s why you have the board. There is no greater asset for a nonprofit than their board. Yes your board has fiduciary responsibilities, yes they are supposed to give. But the biggest thing your board can offer is relationships.”
All of these resources identified by Arreon—donations, vehicles, connections and more—are examples of tangible, structural social capital. This is a critical kind of resource that organizations need to exist, and it’s easy to imagine how organizations could begin to quantify those resources.
Measuring Social Capital
How would you measure the social capital that’s being created by the Choir School?
“There are a couple of metrics we look at already. Our students attend school more regularly than students who are not in the program. We track how they do on Smarter Balanced (Delaware state testing). Our kids do significantly better. We look at our rate of suspensions. Zero of our students have been suspended in 3 years. Zero have been arrested. Zero have had major school interventions.
We would be eager to quantify… our economic impact. Not just in Delaware, but wherever our students may be when they settle and have their first real steady job. Clearly our students are bringing in higher dollars than some of their peers. A lot of our alumni volunteer, serve on boards. We can look at the types of jobs they are doing in the community. We could use some partners in gathering more of this data.”
Arreon discussed the return on investment for putting a child in the Choir School as compared to the cost of juvenile interventions.
“Our program costs about $8,500 for each student per year. People say say, “That’s crazy… that is a huge amount of money per student.” But when you look at that compared to what we’re spending per year per student for school, and we compare that to juvenile interventions, compare that to an average year in incarceration, then it starts looking like a great deal. An adult being incarcerated is about $30,000 per year. Juveniles receive significantly more services and can be about $40,000 – $50,000 per year. [The Choir School] starts looking like a great return on investment.”
Leadership to Cultivate Social Capital
The Choir School seems to be doing an outstanding job of cultivating social capital, and we wanted to understand what kind of leadership Arreon brings to the table to help make that happen.
What is your role in all this?
“The conductor’s job is to share a vision of a piece of artwork amongst a group of people. Any good conductor is able to help create that vision. Each violinist is going to play a phrase slightly differently based on how they’ve practiced it. That’s wonderful and that’s beautiful. But if everyone is doing everything they want to do without that shared vision, it can’t happen. The word conductor comes from the same word conduit. That’s all I’m doing here… helping to make this full piece of artwork come to fruition. There is a space for everyone’s vision. There’s enough room for everyone’s values. It’s just how to make that all come together.”
How do you define social capital?
“Social capital has to do with people, and how do people bring value outside of dollars. It’s the measure of those intangible benefits that come from having a relationship with someone.”
How You Can Help
Arreon’s dream is to replicate the Choir School model in other communities across the country and to grow the Choir School in the Wilmington, Delaware. If the Choir School mission resonated with you, please consider making an investment of any kind.
- If you know individuals who are interested in transforming urban communities, you can connect them with Arreon.
- If you are blessed with financial resources, you can make a donation to support a student in attending the program.
- If you live in the Wilmington, Delaware area you can volunteer your expertise in academics or music to help students.
Thanks to Moonloop Photography for the beautiful photos of the Choir School family!