18 November 2015

Arts In Schools

[There was a lot of press coverage this year of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which came around this past August.  The devastation hit the schools particularly hard, but there have been rays of hope and vast improvements in the ensuing decade.  Readers of ROT will know that education and especially arts education is a singular interest of mine.  So I’ve put together two articles, one from CBS Television and the other from the Washington Post, that both report on how the arts in schools have benefited the schools, their students, and the community.]

by Michelle Miller

NEW ORLEANS – There was a talent show at the White House Tuesday, and the first lady was right in the middle of it. The performers go to troubled schools that have added the arts to their core curriculum to try to turn them around.

It’s an Obama administration program that has been so successful, it was expanded Tuesday to a total of 35 schools.

With so much rhythm in the room, it’s hard to imagine music nearly died at one New Orleans school. But four years ago, everything was failing at the school, now known as the Renew Cultural Arts Academy.

Fewer than 15 percent of students could read at grade level. It was one of the lowest testing schools in Louisiana.

“I heard from friends that there was a lot of stuff going on, like fights, and teachers weren’t really teaching,” says seventh-grader Angela Russell. Angela didn’t want to come to the school, but she says things are different since the school decided to put more emphasis on arts education.

“I like everything about being here,” she says. “It’s, like, the first school I’ve ever really enjoyed.”

Now students like Angela count the measures in band or stand up in math class to act out a bar graph.

“It’s not just to have a music education class, you know, during the school day or after school,” says Ron Gubitz, the elementary school principal. “But it’s actually to use the music and use visual arts and use theater to teach core content.”

With the new curriculum, the school has seen a 20 point rise in standardized tests over five years – plenty of room for improvement, but enough to earn recognition from the White House. Renew is one of the Turnaround schools granted funding to hire more arts teachers, tripling the time kids spend learning the arts.

“We’ve been doing that work to set a template so that any school sees that it’s possible to do this,” says actress Alfre Woodard, who volunteers at the school. “Enrollment stays steady, or it goes up, behavioral problems go down and the culture of the schools are transformed.”

It’s transformed sixth-grader Jarred Gray.

“I was bad,” he admits. “I would get put out of class a lot.”

With his classmates, he just took his first-ever plane ride – to the White House.

Jarred says when he found out he was going to the White House, “I fainted.”

“I got home and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m going to Washington,’ and I laid in my bed and I was like, ‘Oh, goodness,’” he recalls.

Music woke him up – and brought his school back to life.

[Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.  Her work regularly appears on the CBS Evening News, CBS This Morning, and CBS Sunday Morning.  She joined CBS News in 2004.  This report was aired on the CBS Evening News on 20 May 2014.]

*  *  *  *
by Krissah Thompson

[This article, which appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 21 May 2014, reports on a program that’s been extraordinarily successful in reviving not only the strengths of the city’s education system, but the resilience and confidence of the students and their families, not only in the schools, but in their city as well.]

The first White House talent show was a little retro and at turns kitchy and cute. Children, invited to show how arts education had helped their underperforming schools, were the main attraction. But a few celebrities assisted.

The East Room, typically a showcase for a portrait of Martha Washington, was bathed in neon orange, green and red lights and served as a stage on Tuesday afternoon. A piano player sat in the corner.

Michelle Obama, who was seated front row, appeared to be thrilled as she took in performances by children from six of the eight schools selected to participate in an arts program backed by the federal government. The students moved to African beats, played tribal tunes on xylophones and performed spoken word pieces during a program that lasted an hour and a half.

A handful of celebrities joined in, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Alfre Woodard, who volunteer as arts mentors at schools through the Turnaround Arts program. The program and the talent show that celebrated it came about through a partnership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Education Department and the White House two years ago to see whether arts education could give a boost to failing elementary and middle schools.

For three years, eight schools were “adopted” by a well-known artists and collectively received $14.7 million to institute arts and other programs. That money came from a range of sources, and about $2 million of it went to arts alone.

The program is working, Obama said, and next year it will grow from eight schools to 35.

“With the help of this program and some school improvement grants, math and reading scores have gone up in these schools, attendance is up, enrollment is up, parent engagement is up, suspensions have plummeted, and two of the schools in our pilot improved so dramatically that they are no longer in ‘turnaround’ status,” she said. “That’s amazing.”

After the first lady’s remarks, students from Lame Deer Jr. High School on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana performed with musicians from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Girls from Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Ore., sang “You’re Never Fully Dressed” from the play “Annie” with Sarah Jessica Parker. A trio of teenage boys from Noel Community Arts School in Denver crooned “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to the first lady.

Obama swayed throughout the performances, clapped her hands, sang along and convinced her husband to swing by.

“Thank you, honey,” she said to him, when he popped up at the end of the performances to congratulate the students, who came from schools in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Washington, D.C. Students at two of the schools displayed photography or other forms of visual art.

“I hope that events like this help send a message to school districts, and parents, and governors, and leaders all across this country: You’ve got to support the arts,” President Obama said. “It’s a priority.”

Michelle Obama, who advocates for young Americans to attain education beyond high school, has been a strong supporter of the arts. Last year, she visited Savoy Elementary in the District with “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, who serves as arts mentor to the school.

For the Obamas, talent shows are a family tradition that date back to the first lady’s childhood. The large Robinson family could not afford a big gift exchange, so everyone would put gifts in a bag. Each person would pull a gift and would be expected to take part in a kind of talent show by singing, dancing or telling a joke.

The family still holds the talent show each Christmas.

[Krissah Thompson began writing for the Washington Post in 2001. She’s covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County, Maryland, bureau. She’s also been an enterprise writer on the National staff, traveling the country to interview voters during the 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, she’s written about civil rights, race, and politics. Now she’s a Style writer, who covers First Lady Michelle Obama and a broad range of people.]

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