Arts Program That Targets Failing Schools Expands

By Jessica Brown — June 03, 2015 3 min read
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A program that uses arts education to help turn around failing public schools is expanding for the second time.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announced Wednesday its Turnaround Arts initiative has added five additional school districts: Bridgeport, Conn.; Broward County, Fla.; Hawaii; New York City; and the District of Columbia. All the districts also have local partners.

Turnaround Arts also announced a new focus on early-childhood learning. It will provide specialized support and resources to Head Start and pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms in the Turnaround Arts schools.

The initiative now reaches more than 22,000 students in 49 schools across 14 states and the District of Columbia. It targets so-called “turnaround schools"—schools selected by the U.S. Department of Education to receive extra resources because they are in the bottom 5 percent of schools in their state in student achievement.

The initiative, which focuses on elementary schools and middle schools, began in 2012 as a pilot program in eight schools. It helps schools hire arts and music teachers, buy art supplies and instruments, and integrate art with other core subjects such as reading, math, and science. The program also works with celebrity artists who “adopt” the schools. Cameron Diaz, Jack Johnson, and Paula Abdul are among those added to the roster this year.

The U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, and private foundations such as the Ford Foundation are spending $5 million over the next three years on the program. Another $10 million is raised locally. (The Ford Foundation also supports coverage of more and better learning time in Education Week.]

Building a self-sustaining model

Turnaround Arts schools receive funding for three years. Rachel Goslins, executive director of the Presidential Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, told me the goal is to help schools create a self-sustaining model so they can continue the work after the money runs out.

“Our hope is they build in lessons so they don’t need us anymore,” she said.

We wrote about the program last year after a Booz Allen Hamilton evaluation reported that academic achievement had improved in Turnaround Arts schools. The evaluation found that on average the Turnaround Arts schools showed a 23 percent improvement in math proficiency and a 13 percent increase in reading proficiency over three years. Disciplinary issues went down and attendance rates went up.

But will that be sustainable? Goslins said the program will undergo “soft” evaluations in the near future and eventually another major one like Booz Allen to find out.

Goslins notes the program also brings plenty of benefits that can’t be measured in tests scores. She can see the difference when she walks into a Turnaround Arts building.

“They’ve gone from sad, regimented, sterile places with low staff morale, and low parent and student engagement to vibrant hallways filled with art and the sound of tubas down the hall” she said. “They use visual art to teach science and ... use music to teach math class.”

“They feel fundamentally different,” she said. “Until these schools that have been underperforming for decades feel different, they won’t act different.”

‘A Wrench, Not a Flower’

Goslins said one goal of the program is to show schools that they don’t have to wait until math scores go up to add arts programming.

“It’s hard to find someone that says they don’t want arts education,” she said. “But the problem is [schools] feel they can only [add it] after they solve some of the hard problems. We hope they’ll see it not as a flower that you give to someone after everything is fixed, but as a wrench —a tool used to fix these schools’ challenges.”

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