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Struggling schools benefit from adding arts to learning

January 10, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
At ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, students put their multiplication tables to song, while eighth graders use the musical “Hamilton” to study debate. The public charter school’s curriculum is a product of a federal effort to use arts education to boost achievement in the nation’s lowest performing schools. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: using the power and appeal of the arts to boost low-performing schools.

Arts frequently get cut from school curricula due to money and time, but a pilot program around the country is trying to use music, performance and other arts in dozens of schools to motivate kids.

Jeffrey Brown has the story. It’s part of our weekly series on Making the Grade.

JEFFREY BROWN: Making music and using the arts to build math and other skills, that’s the theory here at the ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, a public charter school in New Orleans, not long ago, one of the lowest performing schools in Louisiana, a state ranking near the bottom in the nation.

It’s a school now showing measurable signs of educational advancement.

Why does the singing help you do math?

STUDENT: Because, at my old school, when we didn’t have any songs for multiplication, we — like, half my class used to get, like, unsatisfactories, because they didn’t remember it for multiplication. But now that I’m at this school, and I’m singing songs, I can memorize it more.

JEFFREY BROWN: A floor above, an eighth grade social studies class uses the musical “Hamilton” to make history come alive.

Teacher Areonne Howard:

AREONNE HOWARD, ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy: I’m obsessed with “Hamilton,” and so the rap battles were just a perfect way to bring them into what a debate actually is and how to do it.

It triggers their listening skills, too, and their writing skills, because they’re going to have to write their own, and so that we provided a model for them, but they love it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Samantha King works for KID smART, a consulting company that’s helped craft the curriculum here and at other schools.

SAMANTHA KING, KID smART: The general idea of arts integration is to appeal to different modalities of children’s learning. So they get to get up and use perhaps skills and things that they love or are drawn to, theater, dance, visual arts, music. And we find that, when you put both things together, it sticks. I mean, they remember things. It’s in their body memory.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kathy Fletcher is national director of Turnaround Arts.

KATHY FLETCHER, National Director, Turnaround Arts: The idea is really simple, and it is that the arts in education can be used not just as a flower, something to do after math and science scores are up, but actually as a reform strategy, something that really can help to reach and teach and engage children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Turnaround Arts is a 5-year-old program created by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. It’s the first federal effort to use arts education as a tool to boost achievement in the nation’s lowest performing schools.

Seventy percent of its funding comes from foundations and the private sector. Turnaround began in eight schools around the country. The number recently rose to 68 in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

KATHY FLETCHER: In the decades past, the first thing to get cut when budgets are going are the arts. And I think a lot of people thought that families would get their own art lessons and dance classes.

And there’s about six million kids in this country who are in public schools, charter schools, who don’t have those opportunities, so they don’t get any arts in school. And to have something that positive and that joyful to kick-start literacy and a lot of the other core content subjects, it just seems like a smart way to teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: That strikes a personal chord in the Turnaround artists, accomplished professionals who volunteer their time to work with students and teachers.

At ReNEW Dolores T. Aaron Academy, we watched actress Alfre Woodard, singer Graham Nash and our own David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, in action.

ALFRE WOODARD, Actress: So, let me hear the sound it makes. Ah. Never hold sound in.

STUDENT: I have been watching the news.

DAVID BROOKS: And just remember to take your time. You’re going to want to, like, rush through because you will be a little nervous. But if you can stop and breathe, it will seem long to you, but it will seem great to everybody else.

GRAHAM NASH, Musician: Can you feel the vibrations in the guitar? Listen, put your hands on the body.

JEFFREY BROWN: Woodard, known for award-winning film, stage and television roles, is a veteran of the program.

Why is this work important?

ALFRE WOODARD: Somebody showed up for both of us. That’s why we’re here. Art completes not only the education, but it completes the human being, our ability to create, and to express that creation.

And we also have all the visuals now of channels in your brain opening up when you’re doing a particular discipline. So, once we had that, we wanted to come into schools, put it to the test.

GRAHAM NASH: You know, this particular school, it was one of their very first projects. And when they first came here, the windows were blacked out and the skylight was blocked off and the rats were running along the top of the wall. And now look at it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, but never forgets his bleak childhood in post-World War II England.

GRAHAM NASH: I like to go into a thing not knowing exactly what’s going on, but I will turn that, then I will deal with whatever it is. Right?

So, one of the kids comes up to me, and he goes, you know, Mr. Nash, we have rewritten your song “Chicago,” and here it is. And we’re going to teach it to you.

(Singing): Won’t you please come to New Orleans just to dance?

I went, OK, let’s go, you know, because you can either stop it right there and say, look, you can’t rewrite my song, blah, blah, blah, or you can just go with it and see what happens. And when you choose that moment, that’s when the world opens up and all kinds of opportunities come your way.

JEFFREY BROWN: An independent evaluation of the original eight Turnaround schools conducted showed early success. Half the schools improved their attendance rates. The average improvement in math proficiency was 22 percent and reading close to 13 percent.

And discipline problems fell. At ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, for example, suspensions were down 51 percent. And the kids themselves?

New Orleans ninth grader Jared Mullens has seen his own turnaround through the arts.

JARED MULLENS, Student: I will be thinking, what more can I achieve in life, instead of just stopping at this point? When I’m in the arts, I’m focused.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last spring, he found himself at the White House singing for first lady Michelle Obama, an early backer of Turnaround Arts.

Months later, in New Orleans, he sang to a packed crowd of a different sort, a high school gymnasium filled with students, teachers, parents and Turnaround artists.

Turnaround Arts will expand to 20 more schools next fall. And in a step to ensure its future, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington will help manage and host the program.

From New Orleans, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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