Chester Arts School Moves Forward

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

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.”

Read about the Chester Children’s Chorus here.


  1. It is laughable that anyone could doubt the wisdom of this new school or think that Dr. Alston is an “outsider”. What he has managed to accomplish with his chorus is unbelievable and anyone who has ever seen them perform knows his complete devotion to our children. Chester is in terrible shape and we need to stop being afraid when someone can make some real changes. Thank God he is willing to step forward and make this happen.

  2. My daughter has been a member of the Chester Children’s Chorus for four years. During this time, I have had the opportunity to witness Mr. Alston’s passion and dedication for the children of the Chester Community. We would be foolish to say that his wisdom, musical expertise and most of all his heart for the children of Chester, is anything less than a wonderful gift to the city!!!!

    Many Thanks Mr Alston!!!!!

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