Initiative Taps Arts, Celebrities to Help Turn Around Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — April 23, 2012 5 min read
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A set of eight academically troubled public schools spanning the nation will get a big dose of arts education support to help them turn around—not to mention access to a little star power from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Sarah Jessica Parker—under a new public-private partnership announced today by a White House advisory panel.

The effort aims not only to assist the struggling schools but also to serve as a test bed for the idea that high-quality, integrated arts education can play a valuable role in motivating students, improving school climate, and improving academic achievement across disciplines.

“It’s not only a flower, it’s a wrench,” Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said of arts education. “We will have a stable of standout case studies for schools ... that used the arts as one of their tools,” she told me in an interview.

The public elementary and middle schools selected, from Boston and New Orleans to Lame Deer, Mont., and Portland Ore., are among the lowest-achieving 5 percent in their respective states. They are already recipients of grant support under the federal School Improvement Grants program. (For an early and in-depth look at the $3 billion SIG program, check out our recent EdWeek coverage.)

The so-called Turnaround Arts initiative is the brainchild of the presidential committee, and was developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Domestic Policy Council. Last year, the committee issued a report calling for policymakers to “reinvest” in arts education, arguing that the arts hold great potential to boost student engagement and academic achievement across disciplines. The initiative offers a chance to explore that potential, and will be the subject of an external evaluation.

Over the next two years, the schools will receive an infusion of arts education resources and expertise to support teachers and the school leadership in using the arts as a pillar of their turnaround strategies, a press release explains. This will include access to summer leadership programs, as well as in-school professional development, and support in forming partnerships with community arts and cultural organizations. The schools also will get access to art supplies and musical instruments.

The range of private partners supporting the Turnaround Arts initiative include the Ford Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation, Crayola, the NAMM (National Association of Musical Merchants) Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and Booz Allen Hamilton, which will conduct the research. The initiative will be managed by the Arts Education Partnership, a national advocacy coalition.

Goslins said that all told, the private assistance will amount to about $1 million per year, though most of that will come in the form of in-kind services, support, and supplies.

Andrew Bott, the principal of Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Boston, said he believes his school’s participation in the initiative will help to ensure its work to improve is “deepened and expanded.”

“Students in Orchard Gardens are like students everywhere,” he said in a press release. “Despite poverty, continual staff turnover, and complicated issues at home, these kids want a place to focus and learn. They deserve to have music, art, and theater available to them.” (It just so happens that Orchard Gardens is one of the schools profiled as part of the EdWeek coverage of the SIG program.)

Each school will also be paired with one (or more) members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, including painter and photographer Chuck Close; actresses Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington, and Alfre Woodard; actor Forest Whitaker; dancer Damian Woetzell; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. These celebrities will work with the schools and communities and help highlight their achievements.

(The committee, established in 1982 by President Reagan, includes more than 30 private members, plus a dozen ‘ex-officio’ members from federal agencies and departments, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. First lady Michelle Obama is the honorary chair of the committee.)

Candidate schools were nominated by state and municipal authorities, according to a fact sheet, through a selection process coordinated with the federal Education Department. In the end, Goslins said that there were about 25 contenders. PCAH members and staff conducted site visits at 14 finalist schools.

The focus, the fact sheet said, was on identifying schools with a “need and opportunity” for the arts, “great principals with district support, and a commitment to the idea that arts education is part of the solution.” The selection process also aimed to identify a set of schools with geographic and demographic diversity.

Goslins also noted that applicant schools were required to have at least one full-time arts or music teacher already in place. “If arts education is going to have a home, there must be someone there full-time with a vision for that,” she said.

Of course, observers are likely to have plenty of questions about the Turnaround Arts initiative’s ultimate value and what lessons it can impart. For one, the level of intensive arts supports these schools will enjoy is not likely to be universally available to struggling schools any time soon, if ever. Also, given that these SIG schools are already getting academic and financial assistance in other areas thanks to the separate federal grants program, it may prove difficult to tease out through the research what contribution the arts component makes.

Finally, if the Turnaround Arts initiative proves to make a real difference, there’s always the question of what happens to these schools when it ends. Can the momentum be sustained once the flood of extra resources dries up, as well as the early excitement and energy, not to mention the celebrity partners to help rally a community?

Goslins said she’s keenly aware of the need to ensure that the initiative lays the ground work for something truly sustainable. And she suggests that a key ingredient is forging and solidifying partnerships with local arts and cultural institutions that can and will stick around for the long haul.

In the end, Goslins said she’s not suggesting that the arts alone will somehow save struggling schools.

“The arts are absolutely not a silver bullet for these schools,” she said. “No single thing is. ... But when you add in the arts as part of your basic toolkit,” she contends, “you’re going to get better results than if you don’t.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.