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Arts Program in Poor Performing Schools Helping Students

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An arts program is helping students at some of the lowest performing schools in the United States.

The program, called Turnaround Arts, aims to help improve low performing schools by adding music and the arts to the usual study program.

Turnaround Arts was launched by Michelle Obama, the wife of former U.S. President Barack Obama. Some money for the program comes from the federal government.

For the students at participating schools, the program offers a kind of safe haven from city neighborhoods. Many of the children come from areas with high crime rates.

The Turnaround Arts program is part of the curriculum at the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Los Angeles, California. Test results showed the school performed in the lowest five percent in the state.

Florence Griffith Joyner serves families from Watts, an area known for gang violence. Akida Kissane Long, the head of the school, says Watts is a difficult neighborhood for students.

“High crime, high poverty, very multi-generational families in public housing. There’s gun violence,” she explained. “We see a lot of helicopters and we have lockdowns regularly and so, the thing is, all associated with poverty – that really traumatized students, so many of our students come to school with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”

Long noted how when she started working at the school five years ago, there was “willful disobedience … fighting (and) destruction of school property.” She said there were “267 suspensions on record, as well as 1,167 classroom suspensions.”

Putting what students love into the class

Turnaround Arts is a partnership between the federal government and private businesses. Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary is one of 68 schools in the U.S. participating in the program.

Teachers receive special training and look for ways to add music and the arts into all the classes.

Turnaround Arts schools partner with musicians and actors who work with the students. Performers have included Yo-Yo Ma, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elton John and Cameron Diaz.

FILE - Actor Jamie Foxx at a Turnaround Arts event in Minneapolis, Sept. 10, 2014.
FILE - Actor Jamie Foxx at a Turnaround Arts event in Minneapolis, Sept. 10, 2014.

School principal Long noted “The children were so excited and have been so excited because it’s not just about – ‘Go to the board. Do the problem. Turn the page. Read the book.' It’s about acting and impersonating artists and historic figures.”

She noted how some students got the chance to act out the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

The program has been popular with students, too. “I like to act and I like to sing and I like to dance,” said 10-year-old Kayla Driakare.

Seeing results

Long said that Turnaround Arts is only in its first year at the school, and already teachers are already seeing results.

“We’ve probably suspended one kid this year. That’s amazing,” she said. “Parents are getting phone calls to come to… family arts night, and it’s not just the naughty calls home. It’s for them to come and learn more about what their children are learning. So our parent engagement goes up.”

Around the country, participating schools are reporting fewer disciplinary actions, better attendance and improved performance in testing. A three-year long study found that Turnaround Arts schools performed better than other schools that received special grants for school improvement.

The findings come at a time when President Donald Trump is proposing to cut government spending on the arts. Some policy makers are pushing for more attention to subjects like mathematics and science in U.S. education.

“Art speaks to everyone,” Akida Kissane Long said. “It is part of what makes the curriculum rich and exciting and motivating.”

At the end of the three-year program, she wants Los Angeles school officials to make Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary into a magnet school for visual and performing arts. That way the school could get financing to support its arts programs.

I’m Phil Dierking.

­­­­­­­­­­­­VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reported on this story from Los Angeles. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you think it is important to have arts education in schools? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

curriculum – n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.​

discipline – n. control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior​

engage – v. to get and keep someone's attention or interest

gang – n. a group of people who do illegal things together and who often fight against other gangs

grant – n. an amount of money that is given to someone by a government, a company, etc., to be used for a particular purpose ​

impersonate – v. to pretend to be another person

naughty – adj. behaving badly​

magnet schools – n. a public school offering special instruction and programs not available elsewhere, designed to attract a more diverse student body from throughout a school district.​

participate – v. to take part in an activity or event with others​

post-traumatic stress – n. a mental condition that can affect a person who has had a very shocking or difficult experience, such as fighting in a war, and that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, etc. ​

proficiency – n. someone's ability to be good at doing something ​

traumatize – v. to cause someone to become very upset in a way that often leads to serious emotional problems ​

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