Art Works Blog

Turning Schools Around Through Art

Students creating art at Savoy Elementary School in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Savoy Elementary School

Throughout the years, there has been no shortage of proposals designed to improve troubled schools. Longer school days. Block scheduling. Charter schools. Standardized tests. Increased teacher accountability. But one new program is using a different tactic to try and change the course of floundering schools: art.

Announced in April, the Turnaround Art Initiative (TAI) is a new program from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH), in partnership with the NEA among others. The initiative has paired eight schools across the country with high-profile artists, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Yo-Yo Ma, Chuck Close, and Forest Whitaker. Throughout the course of two years, the artists and schools will work together to develop a strong arts curriculum that will benefit students both artistically and academically.

Savoy Elementary School is one of the schools participating in TAI. Located in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, it has been paired with actress Kerry Washington, who hopes to support and spotlight the work of Patrick Pope, the school’s principal. When Pope arrived at Savoy last year, he said the school “was a little up and down.” Inconsistent teaching and frequent changes at the administrative level had both become chronic problems. “There had been some real challenges to focused and consistent direction and leadership,” Pope said.

“Schools that are identified as Turnaround schools, while that sounds like it might be a positive term, is kind of a sad commentary because it means that there’s been a consistent pattern of failure for several years,” Pope said. “I think children and teachers walking into a school that’s identified as consistently failing begin to believe that school is not a very successful place.”

Previously, Pope had been the principal at Washington’s Hardy Middle School, where he built an intensive arts program over the course of a decade. What started with one instrumental music teacher and one visual arts teacher gradually bloomed into nearly a dozen full- and part-time arts teachers, and a requirement that all students learn to play an instrument during their three years at the school. There were vocal classes, a 135-student marching band, a strings program, visual arts, and theater performances.

“The arts program was one very, very vital and core part of the change [at Hardy],” Pope said. “It became a more focused school; it became a very high academic achieving school. We always attributed that to the power and influence of solid arts education.”

A Savoy student works on a self-portrait. Photo courtesy of Savoy Elementary School

Ms. Washington is not surprised. “Too often we think about arts education as an elective extra, as something that if there’s time, if there’s money, then maybe we’ll include it,” she said. “But the arts are not an extra extravagance, but a necessary tool to unlock the solutions to better the American education system.”

Since Pope’s arrival at the helm of Savoy, he has already instituted a dramatically different arts curriculum. In just one year, Pope and his staff have doubled the amount of time students spend in art classes, and have brought in professional artists to teach master classes. Thanks to a partnership with the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), a 50-student gospel choir is also being formed at the school. The Turnaround Art Initiative will also support the creation of a keyboard lab and will alter the curriculum to include daily dance or movement classes for certain grade levels. Pope says he has already seen a difference in his students, and that the hallways and classrooms have become more vibrant.

“The arts give us an opportunity very quickly to have student perform very well and experience success,” he said. “Once students have performed a song or produced an outstanding piece or artwork or have learned a dance movement, and they get a chance to have that recognized, they want more. One of the things that the arts can bring to our kids is a sense of accomplishment and success…and then maybe change some of the stigma about what school is. School can be a place where you really can succeed.”

This success isn’t confined to artistic greatness, of course. For Kerry Washington, who grew up with after-school activities like ballet, gymnastics, and children’s theater, consistent arts education likely did influence her decision to pursue a path as a professional artist. But she says that is not the point of Turnaround, which is instead designed to promote creative thinking and innovation across all disciplines. “I want to make sure that we don’t miss out on the next great physicist because that student never was taught to unlock their own love of learning,” she said. “We want them to fall in love with whatever area of wisdom or knowledge that they’re drawn to. We just know that the arts can help them find that.”

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