After decades at Coolidge High, D.C. Youth Orchestra Program moves to Eastern

By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

The D.C. Youth Orchestra Program has operated for nearly a half-century at Coolidge High School in Northwest. Last month, the nonprofit music program moved a few miles south to Eastern High School in Northeast.

The new location highlights some key changes to the program that has set a course for future expansion despite years of financial uncertainty.

"It has been a very remarkable turnaround for the organization," said Ava Spece, executive director for the program. "It's just a very vibrant and exciting time."

The orchestra marked its 50th anniversary with a gala event and free concert Aug. 21 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that featured conductors Marvin Hamlisch and Jesus Manuel Berard and founder Lyn McLain. More than 100 alumni and students performed for the event.

The search for a new home began five years ago after the school system attempted to increase the $50,000 annual rent for classrooms and rehearsal space at Coolidge to $93,000.

Total revenue for the program had fallen by 7 percent from 2005 to 2007. According to tax records, expenses had outpaced revenue for 2006 and 2007.

After some difficult choices, Spece said the program has begun to turn around. She said donations to the program have increased by more than 40 percent and enrollment has risen by 12 percent from last year.

"We had really been typecasted as this poor, pitiful organization," Spece said. "We just keep talking about what this program does for kids."

The program has offered music classes and performance opportunities to about 50,000 children since its founding in 1960. About 70 percent of the 600 students who participate now are District residents.

Students participate in ensemble classes according to their instrument and ability. The minimum age to enter the program is 4 but varies depending on the instrument choice.

The orchestra has six performance planned for the 2010-11 season. The first is at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at Eastern High School, 1700 East Capitol St. NE.

Spece said she would like to expand the program's reach by increasing the number of participants to 2,000 students and having satellite locations in each of the city's wards.

"Every child needs a place where they feel important," she said. "For a lot of kids, it's the music and the arts."

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