COMPTON — Nine sixth-graders from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School here performed a piece of spoken word poetry at the Turnaround Arts Talent Show at the White House on May 25, sharing a range of experiences from parents separating to wearing a coconut bra in a school play.
First lady Michelle Obama hosted the event to honor the Turnaround Arts Program, a national program created by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to bring arts and music classes to underperforming schools.
“Many in the audience thought [the King Elementary performance] was the most powerful and affecting because students told their own experiences,” said Malissa Shriver, the executive director of Turnaround Arts.
In order to qualify, a school had to place in the lowest fifth percent in the state and in the country. The program allocates about $100,000 per school every year to invest in teacher development and help connect schools with outside resources, according to Shriver. The districts must also commit to hiring at least one full-time arts instructor for the schools.
King Elementary Principal Stephanie Richardson said it was “hard to describe” the powerful emotions of seeing the kids onstage at the White House.
“It was incredible to see them performing in front of all these important people,” she said. “They did an outstanding job; they created it all themselves. For some of them, it was their first time on an airplane.”
Through the program, Richardson said her students receive a weekly art and music class. They have also had the opportunity to visit museums such as the Skirball Cultural Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In addition to a separate arts program, classroom teachers learn to integrate different creative techniques, such as acting out scenes to demonstrate vocabulary words.
“One fourth grade math teacher at King used drumming to teach fractions,” Shriver said. “He said he never saw so many students get an ‘A’ on the test.”
Turnaround schools are partnered with a famous mentor who gives students guidance and checks in on their progress. Actor Forest Whitaker advises King Elementary. Other mentors include Herbie Hancock, Jane Fonda and Tim Robbins, who introduced the King students at the performance.
The program announced an expansion to include six California schools, including Joyner Elementary in Watts, Compton’s Whaley Middle School and Warren Lane Elementary in Inglewood.
“It’s a dream come true for Joyner,” said Principal Akida Kissane Long. “It’s a firm belief of mine that art helps education. I saw that as a classroom teacher and I believe in it so strongly that I wrote my master’s thesis about it. When the arts are at the center it brings the community together.”
Since its pilot program in 2012, Turnaround Arts has expanded from eight to 68 schools nationwide. At the talent show, Michelle Obama announced a partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to ensure the program survives even after President Obama leaves office.
Shriver emphasized that art is essential to education not “just because it’s fun to do,” but that it improves a developing brain. She cited research conducted by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton on the program’s success: reading proficiency improved by an average of about 13 percent and math proficiency by about 23 percent following Turnaround Arts’ intervention into struggling schools.
Richardson would agree, as she said she has noticed positive changes in her students in the school’s two years in Turnaround, including increases in attendance, engagement, parental-involvement and an improvement in reading.