Turnaround Arts: Creating Success in Schools

June 6, 2012

“The arts are critical in providing a world-class education for our young people,” said Chancellor of Washington, DC, Public Schools Kaya Henderson.” But in an era of tough budgetary decisions, making the case for the arts in public schools can be a tough sell. At the Institute’s June 6th Washington Ideas Roundtable Series “Turnaround Arts: Creating Success in Schools,” Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities Rachel Goslins, Aspen Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel, and Henderson laid out how Turnaround Arts — a public-private partnership combining leadership and technical training with an infusion of artists’ time and talent into public schools — can be used as a model. Among topics of conversation were the conditions that have allowed Turnaround Arts’ success:

Willing Artists

Henderson recalled meeting with the Washington Performing Arts Society in one of her first meetings as a deputy chancellor. “’We want to start a program called Capital Jazz to bring in performing artists to work with kids in your toughest middle schools to teach them the history of jazz,’ they said. ‘We need your permission, because for five years, no one in the District would say yes.’ I said yes. Since then, Capital Jazz has expanded and generated similar programs at schools across the city.”

“The feedback we got from the arts community the morning Turnaround Arts was announced was tremendous,” Woetzel said, echoing artists’ desire to be involved in education. “Alvin Ailey, Celebrate the Beat, countless other arts organizations all emailed me that morning alone. The willingness of the arts community to be part of this effort is huge.”

Public-Private Coordination

Artists ready to help need a willing partner in school districts. “Creating a post for coordination with the partners is, from a practitioner perspective, what’s been missing all along,” Woetzel said. “As a dancer, I danced in a thousand gigs, and no one ever asked me to go to a school, never, and I can tell you that I always would have said yes. It would have been a no-brainer, and so that’s one of the things that I’ve been working on privately and through the Arts Program….”

Eager Schools 

Savoy Elementary school in Washington, D.C. has been experimenting with the Turnaround Arts curriculum to great success. Patrick Pope is the principal at Savoy Elementary. “We have found such richness and intensity and interest to do even more [with the arts] in these schools, and feel like we’ve set the stage to build the program out even further,” Pope said. “Our partnerships have been able to help us, but there are also unbelievably talented teachers, artists, and musicians, who want to spend time and work with kids. It’s a very full day. We’ve kind of eliminated recess, but don’t tell the kids that.”

Funding for Change 

Turnaround Arts found funding through the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) Program, which exchanges a three year influx of resources for structural reforms in the lowest-performing 5% of schools. “We reached out to state SIG offices asking them to nominate schools with principals who saw the arts as a way to fix their schools,” Goslins said. “We didn’t know if we’d get anything back—these were schools with violence, drug, and attendance problems, and perhaps there wouldn’t be anyone who would say—‘I know, I’m going to fire my security guards and hire artists.’ But we found this hearty group of principals who volunteered to use the arts to change how students at these challenging schools felt when they walked through the door.”

Arts Programs and School District Collaboration

“[DC’s] Ward 5 doesn’t have a standalone middle school,” Henderson said, illustrating the potential and necessity for collaboration between arts programs and school districts in austere economic climates. “The community expressed a desire for a significant arts program in their middle school, and as we were looking at spaces, an idea came up around a building meant for 900 students. We had 450 students, and realized we could modernize the building and have half the space be performance and office spaces for our arts partners. Why not get married and live together?”

Qualitative Success Stories

Goslins recounted a visit to Roosevelt Elementary- a low-performing school in Connecticut that had almost been shut down and was being given a final chance with a new principal who was trying to use the arts to turn the school around. “I interviewed this sixth grader playing Dorothy in the school’s first-ever musical, The Wiz, who was telling me how hard but exciting it had been to learn her lines,” she said. “The school’s literary coach told me afterwards the girl was in remission from brain cancer, and that her reading ability had shot through the roof as she memorized her lines. ‘Everyone is so excited about the arts focus, and I didn’t really get it,’ the coach said. ‘I thought I did the hard work. But I get it now.’”

Quantitative Evidence

Consulting firm Booz Allen is doing pro-bono study tracking comparable schools that are and are not focusing on the arts, and tracking further within each school what are the specific strategies that are most effective. Goslins hopes similar studies will give principals the leverage to propose arts funding to their schools boards and state legislatures. “You see the most dramatic gains are in bringing the arts into all subjects, and into special demographics like special education and ELL [English language learners],” she said, citing a study where the lowest-proficiency learners in three schools piloting arts integration in reading and math increased their scores in those subjects by 17-19%, while similar students in three control schools saw declines of 4.5%. “Integrative arts is when you see the magic happen,” she said, “and the whole school begins to feel differently.”

Check out additional coverage of the Turnaround Arts initiative in our blog.