A Creative Turnaround for DC’s Schools

Students and staff from five DC Turnaround Arts schools, with First Lady Michelle Obama. The Turnaround Arts program culminates each year at the White House with a talent show for participating schools. Photo: The White House

Last May, in a bustling auditorium in Southeast DC, more than a hundred family and community members gathered to watch a student production of Disney’s “The Lion King.” Some parents wore shirts that teachers had designed to raise funds for the show. The performers were students from Moten, a Ward 8 elementary school. “We had to practice every day,” said Kamille, a fifth-grader in the ensemble. “I enjoyed it a lot.”

Moten secured the licensing and obtained a musical kit from Music Theatre International through the help of Turnaround Arts. The result: “We could make this big and do something great with it,” said Allyson Chamberlain, Moten’s music and choir director.

Everyone pitched in to make the show a success. Parents and teachers constructed props and painted sets; security guards designed costumes; administrators held doughnut sales; other DC public schools and a local church donated supplies. “A lot of the community came out,” said Tashia Jefferson, a Moten parent. “And my son talked about it all summer. Every time we went somewhere he’d say, ‘I was in the Lion King!’”

Turnaround Arts in DC

In 2011 the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) published “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools.” The report recommended arts education for underperforming schools, with “more emphasis on issues of equitable access.” Turnaround Artswas established by PCAH in 2012 as a national public-private partnership with institutions such as the US Department of Education, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The program started in eight low-performing schools across the country, one of which was Savoy Elementaryin DC. Savoy had some of the lowest test scores in the District. With the arrival of Turnaround Arts, attendance rose and discipline referrals dropped. An afterschool dance troupe, the Savoy Players, was so successful that they went on to perform three separate times at the White House.

Today the school incorporates dance, drama, visual arts, and vocal music into the curriculum. “We want to make sure kids have exposure to arts integration and to the diverse arts organizations across the city,” explained Principal Donyale Butler.

Now in its fifth year, Turnaround Arts comprises 68 schools that are selected from the lowest-performing five percent of schools across 15 states and the District. After Savoy’s success, DC Public Schools was invited to expand the program in 2014, and four new schools were added: Bunker Hill, Noyes, Moten,and Turner.

The Impact of an Arts Education

Booz Allen Hamilton conducted a two-year evaluationof Turnaround Arts in conjunction with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. The study revealed that in seven of eight participating schools reading proficiency improved, and in six math proficiency improved. Among its cohort, Savoy did particularly well: from 2011 to 2014 its math proficiency rate improved by 120 percent!

While it can be difficult to quantify success when it comes to an arts education, the impact can be gauged in other ways. For example, the walls of participating schools are now covered in student artwork, and students describe feeling safe at school and how their teachers expect rigorous work from them. For Principal Butler the biggest change at Savoy was the student mindset itself: “We see our students’ excitement coming to school every day and wanting to be here.”

Partnerships between Schools and Artists

The nation’s capital is a treasure trove when it comes to the arts, and Turnaround Arts acts as an intermediary to build relationships between DC schools and arts organizations. Moten’s teachers recently collaborated with Kennedy Center teaching artists to design a summer program. They also worked with the Washington Ballet to incorporate dance into the classroom for second-graders. Meanwhile Savoy partnered with the National Gallery of Art, and Turner hosted teaching residences with artists from Wolf Trap.

“The beauty of the program is that each school can create an individualized plan that serves the specific needs of students and the local community,” explained Katherine Park, the local Turnaround Arts program director for DC Public Schools. “In conjunction with other district strategies, the program provides resources for teachers and assistance with integrating the arts into each school’s core curriculum.”

Another advantage of Turnaround Arts is that it pairs schools with artists, who develop a relationship with students and teachers. High-profile artists who have worked with Ward 8 schools this past year include cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actor and director Elizabeth Banks.

Coming Attractions in 2016-17

The DC cohort of Turnaround Arts schools has exciting plans for the 2016-17 academic year. To begin with, they will collaborate with George Washington University’s School of Psychology to provide advanced art therapy for students.

Principal Butler is working to ensure that every aspect of Savoy’s strategic plan has a relationship to the arts. She also hinted that an upcoming back-to-school night for parents would be something “completely different from what they’ve experienced before.”

Turner plans to collaborate with a local artist to design a mural, and invite family and community members to help out in the school’s garden.

Moten plans to present another musical this year. Last year’s “Lion King” was so popular that this time Chamberlain hopes to leverage participation as an incentive for students who maintain strong attendance. “Our kids got so much out of it, able to accomplish things they didn’t even know they were capable of doing,” Chamberlain said. “And the parents see the change.”

Jonathan Lewis has written about education and the arts for EdSurgeArtsBlog, and KnightBlog. He works for DC Public Schools in the Office of Teaching and Learning. You can also read his articles on DC history in the Hill Rag. 


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