Youth Chorus Founder Wins MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

By Erik W. Robelen — September 21, 2011 2 min read
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Attention arts education advocates. Francisco J. Núñez, the founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, has just been named one of this year’s 22 MacArthur Fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Over at Inside School Research, my colleague Sarah D. Sparks spotlights another winner with K-12 connections, Roland G. Fryer, Jr. He’s a researcher from Harvard University known for his work in tracing the potential causes and educational results of the achievement gaps for minority students. Yet another winner is concussion expert Kevin Guskiewicz, who Bryan Toporek writes about in Schooled in Sports.

The MacArthur Foundation says that with more than 1,000 young people in five after-school choruses and 13 choruses in its Satellite School Program in inner-city public schools, Núñez’s organization exposes young singers to an “unmatched variety of music and music makers.”

“Núñez has elevated the youth chorus to the ranks of serious contemporary music, commissioning and performing some of the most challenging works for youth choirs,” the foundation says. “His belief in the beauty of young voices and his commitment to experimenting with their boundaries and possibilities has allowed him to dramatically expand the expressive capabilities of the youth choir.”

The Associated Press reached Núñez, 46, to discuss the news.

“I was dumbfounded, I actually cried,” Núñez told the AP of his reaction upon learning that he was a winner. “I get this call from a gentleman. He tells me to tell whoever I’m with to leave and go into a private room. Next thing I know I have to sit down at my desk. I started shaking.”

Winners of the fellowships receive $500,000 that they may spend as they wish. But many, like Núñez, say the honor of the fellowship makes them focus on what they would accomplish in their fields if only they had the means, the AP story notes.

“I feel like I have an opportunity here and a challenge to figure out something really great,” he told the AP.

The winners were selected for their “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future,” the MacArthur Foundation said.

One of last year’s winners was Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school science and engineering teacher in Goleta, Calif. He was believed to be the first public school science teachers to receive one of the foundation’s annual awards, often referred to as “genius grants.”

In fact, a book published earlier this year chronicles the experience of Abo-Shaeer and his students as they take part in a national robotics competition.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.