Actors, artists aim to turn around failing schools

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  • Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker are adopting some of the nation’s worst-performing schools and pledged Monday to help the Obama administration turn them around by integrating arts education.

    The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announced a new Turnaround Arts initiative as a pilot project for eight schools with officials from the White House and U.S. Department of Education. Organizers said they aim to demonstrate research that shows the arts can help reduce behavioral problems and increase student attendance, engagement and academic success.

    The two-year initiative will target eight high-poverty elementary and middle schools. The schools were among the lowest-performing schools in each of their states and had qualified for about $14 million in federal School Improvement Grants from the Obama administration. The public-private arts initiative will bring new training for educators at the Aspen Institute, art supplies, musical instruments and programs totaling about $1 million per year, funded by the Ford Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation and other sponsors.

    Schools selected for the project are in both urban and rural areas. They are in New Orleans; Denver; Boston; Washington; Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Ore.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Lame Deer, Mont.

    Washington, who is starring in the new ABC drama “Scandal,” will adopt a District of Columbia school over the next two years. Washington told The Associated Press there are often misconceptions about the role arts play in school, as if the arts are only the “sprinkles on the icing.”

    “It’s not that the arts are something to put on in the final period of the day once all the real work is done,” she said. “Arts are actually how we can help them get the real work done.”

    For example, studies show music training can help improve student math scores, she said.

    Artists from the president’s committee, including Washington, will present programs to students and teachers, celebrate their successes, help create community partnerships and raise funds to continue their work beyond the initial two years.

    This is believed to be the first federal initiative to examine the role of arts in school reform and will also generate new research looking at how a robust arts program affects students, examining data in each of the eight schools, said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the presidential arts committee.

    “It’s really hard to find anybody who says arts education is bad for kids,” Goslins said. “But there is a huge amount of skepticism that the arts could be an important part of the solution in these schools.”

    The White House threw its support behind the effort, in part because 15 percent of the nation’s schools are responsible for half the dropout rate, said Mark Zuckerman, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Research shows arts education can improve graduation rates and school climates, he said.

    But a recent Department of Education study said high-poverty schools are 50 percent less likely to offer arts and music classes — affecting millions of students.

    “Sex and the City” star Parker will adopt a school in Portland, and Whitaker will work with students in Des Moines.

    Artist Chuck Close, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, dancer Damian Woetzel and actress Alfre Woodard also are adopting schools in the two-year program.

    In Montana, Lame Deer Junior High School on a Cheyenne American Indian reservation was one of the neediest schools during the selection process. It’s a remote area that has trouble attracting strong teachers.

    “There’s an entire school of kids who have never seen a play and have never been to a museum, ever,” Goslins said. The initiative can help bridge a divide between the school and traditional tribal arts and culture at home, she said.

    Some schools will add new arts specialists with their federal grant money. The Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, Conn., has started a band program for the first time in 17 years.

    In New Orleans, the Batiste Cultural Arts Academy began an after-school arts program two years ago to change a culture that had been plagued by violence, said principal Ron Gubitz. Now it plans to extend the arts to the regular school day as well.

    Gubitz said his school can prove the arts are an “accelerator” for improvements in reading, math and other subjects.

    “We have to give kids’ brains an opportunity to synthesize these things we’re teaching them at a deep level,” he said. “That happens best when arts are present in the school.”

    James Catterall of the University of California Los Angeles and Susan Dumais of Louisiana State University, who have researched the effects of arts education for at-risk youth, said having White House support could be a breakthrough for other schools. But they both warned it could take years to see measurable improvements.

    “Are the feds prepared to hang in with these schools and support them over five years?” Catterall said, noting some initiatives start strong but fade away.

    Dumais said people often want fast solutions from educators. “I’m tentatively hopeful,” she said. “I would say patience is key here.”

    For Washington, whose star has been rising as an actress since her breakout performance as Ray Charles’ wife in the 2004 movie “Ray,” arts programs might have made the difference for her growing up in the Bronx at the height of the crack epidemic.

    “I literally remember walking to dance class, walking those two blocks from my house and seeing crack vials on the street,” Washington said. “I just think, if I wasn’t walking to dance class, where would I have been walking? I just don’t know.”

    Children’s theater and ballet taught her about collaborating with others, being accountable and thinking outside the box, she said. It also kept her from being home alone after school.

    “I come from a great family,” Washington said. “But it’s easy to fall through the cracks without those resources around you, without those extra things that get you excited about learning.”

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