Dance, drama and mariachi — schools use the arts as a 'turnaround' strategy
Students from more than 40 schools will perform at the Kennedy Center.
"You're so skinny."
"You sound stupid."
"You're not talented."
That’s how “Build You Up,” a contemporary dance performed by Willard Intermediate School’s dance team, begins. Delivering an anti-bullying message, the Santa Ana, CA, middle-schoolers communicate isolation, teasing and then confidence through their movements, ending with pronouncements such as “I am smart,” “I am unique,” and “I am enough.”
This Sunday, the team — with their self-taught pianist Jayro Ortez — will join students from more than 40 other schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia at the Turnaround Arts Talent Show. To be held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the event will allow students to show off performances and visual works of art they’ve spent months preparing while also drawing attention to the arts as a vehicle for school improvement. The 4 p.m. event will stream live on the Kennedy Center’s Facebook page.
“I’ve been into dance since 6th grade,” says Willard 8th-grader Carlos Flores, adding that he’s “into dancing a lot and expressing emotions, because I wasn’t able to get it out when I was younger.”
Turnaround Arts was created in 2011 as part of President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and is now run by the Kennedy Center. From just a small group of pilot sites testing whether access to the arts could help some of the country’s most struggling schools, the approach has now grown to include 73 schools in 37 districts in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, now in effect, also provides new opportunities for schools to increase arts instruction as part of a “well-rounded education.”
“So much of school reform has been about compliance and punitive measures and scripted measures,” says Barbara Palley, the director of program and strategy for Turnaround Arts: California, which was developed with financial support from architect Frank Gehry. “What this approach is saying is there is a whole child, and the arts are a way to get at all of that.”
The national office works with partner organizations in each of the 17 states to provide professional development, access to instruments or other resources, and connections with other organizations that can support arts instruction and integration into the curriculum. Choreographer Irishia Hubbard with the Orange County Therapeutic Arts Center, for example, teaches the dance team at Willard, while also offering dance during physical education classes three hours a week. And Get Lit, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that uses poetry and spoken word to increase literacy, works with the school’s history and English teachers.
Other sites, mostly elementary schools, use Acting Right, a drama-based classroom management strategy, and some schools are enlivening their instruction with Flocabulary, an online source of lessons, videos and songs that use hip-hop to teach Common Core standards.
“It’s done in a way that interests students, and it is done with a medium that is fun for them,” says Alicia Robinson, the director of visual and performing arts and the program director for Turnaround Arts, Bridgeport, CT, which has five schools in the program. The Park City Rockers, an ensemble band of 15 students, representing all five schools, will perform “We Can if We Believe” in Sunday’s show.
Extending the experience
The national office matches schools with professional artists who serve as mentors and visit their adopted schools at least once a year. Willard’s teaching artist — “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe — has done much more than that. He judged their “So, Willard’s Got Talent?” show and provided the young performers with honest feedback on how to improve, says Amy Scruton, Willard’s principal.
Turnaround Arts also gives students access to cultural events and performances — sometimes on short notice and often on Saturdays, but those are minor details for Scruton. “We say yes to those opportunities and I figure it out later,” she says.
The performances are a chance for students to learn more about arts-related careers than just what they see on TV or the stage.
“Whenever we can, we try to extend the experience,” by having the students meet the performers, take a tour backstage or talk to other professionals involved in the production, says Jacob Campbell, the program manager for Turnaround Arts: California. “It’s not just a field trip for the sake of a field trip. We try to break down the walls around it.”
Schools involved in Turnaround Arts commit to providing every student with arts instruction. Willard already offered choir, band and art, but since being accepted into the program, Scruton has also added a mariachi program and an orchestra, as well as advanced levels of band and art. To give students more opportunities to pursue their interests in the arts, she added a zero period for P.E. While some staff members predicted students wouldn’t show up that early for P.E., about 80 of them do, she says.
In Bridgeport, Robinson says it’s natural for some schools to have “naysayers” or teachers “who feel it’s not their thing.” In those cases, school leaders work with teachers who are more inspired to move from enhancing their lessons with the arts to deeper integration in which “you’re covering the social studies standards and the music standards and students understand they are learning both,” she says.
Teachers at Turnaround Arts schools also receive professional development in using Visual Thinking Strategies, a practice in which students look at works of art, talk about what they see in the painting and back up their statements. Teachers respond to what each student has to say and build upon their statements using more advanced vocabulary. The technique is especially helpful for English learners, who make up about half of Willard Intermediate’s 750-student enrollment, Scruton says.
In Laura Compton’s science class at Willard, students are using those same strategies to interpret graphs about species of birds in the Galapagos Islands.
“So more specifically you’re saying the chart is letting us know what types of food these finches eat,” she says, responding to one of the students.
Now comfortable with the strategy, several students during the lesson offer their observations, but it used to be the same two or three students, Compton says. Visual Thinking Strategies is also improving her students’ writing, and school-wide, Scruton says improvements in students’ writing have been seen in every student subgroup.
“If you can verbalize it, you are able to write it,” Compton says, adding that the practice will help students meet the Next Generation Science Standards. “So much of it is constructing an explanation.”
When teachers were learning to using the strategies, Scruton says she was encouraged to make it a special experience and not just another training session. They went to Orange County’s Bowers Museum to practice with real paintings and take turns facilitating the process.
A ‘powerful message’
Schools in Turnaround Arts also agree to put on a musical, something that many of them haven’t done in the past. The events are important because they “hit so many things” — student attendance, planning and production, and parent engagement, Robinson says, predicting that the schools will continue to produce musicals long after their formal relationship with Turnaround Arts ends.
While schools receive resources and training from the national office for a three-year period, Campbell notes that discussions are underway about how to maintain a network of participating schools that might allow them to continue to support each other.
At Willard, Scruton says officials with the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) have also thought about how to create some continuity for students as they prepare for high school. Willard’s band teacher, for example, also teaches at Santa Ana High School, and members of the dance team walk over to the high school once a week to work with seniors in the dance program. The expanding opportunities in the arts are also attracting some attention from parents, the principal adds. “Word is getting around that this is a good place to be.”
At their rehearsal last week, the dance team members said none of them have ever been to Washington, but Robyn McNair, a visual and performing arts curriculum specialist with SAUSD, told them their performance is likely to inspire the audience.
“You’re carrying this powerful message,” she said, “that speaks to everyone at every level.”
Follow Linda Jacobson on Twitter