You couldn’t miss the drummer in the backward baseball cap among the sea of student musicians. It really was Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chad Smith, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, jamming with a bunch of third graders at Mary Chapa Literacy and Technology Academy. Students let loose on xylophones, marimbas, and djembes, while music teacher Christopher Lopez joined in on bass.

Smith has adopted the Greenfield, California, school as part of Turn-around Arts, a public-private program developed by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humani-ties (PCAH). Turnaround uses the arts to improve learning, behavior, and academic performance in some of the nation’s most challenged elementary and middle schools. Qualifying schools are high poverty and low performing, in the bottom five percent in their states. “For me to go there, it’s not a big deal— I just show up,” Smith says. “To them, it’s like, ‘Wow! Someone cares about us.’ A little bit of inspiration, a little bit of hope, really goes a long way.” Smith has also arranged for donations of instruments, stays connected to the school via Skype, and will return in March to help coach student performers in a production of The Jungle Book.

Since Turnaround Arts’ launch in 2011 with eight pilot locations, it has expanded to 35 schools, with a goal of 75 schools in 15 states by 2016. The program offers extensive teacher training, resources, and materials to each school for three years. And it’s showing results: A new independent evaluation by Booz Allen Hamilton found that the eight pilot schools improved their proficiency in math, reading, or both. Attendance climbed at half of the schools, and discipline problems lessened dramatically, by more than half. And school officials say parents who once avoided attending events now relish the opportunity to see their children’s music performances or art exhibits.

Star power helps, no doubt. Every Turnaround school works with a celebrity artist, including actors Forest Whitaker, Alfre Woodard, and Sarah Jessica Parker, musicians Trombone Shorty and Josh Groban, and visual artist Chuck Close. Some students performed for First Lady Michelle Obama during the first-ever talent show at the White House this past fall. “Our boys auditioned for the chance to travel to D.C. and took the event very seriously,” says Libby Gray Brien, a principal intern and former teacher from Noel Community Arts School in Denver. Brien’s students sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” with John Lloyd Young, star of Jersey Boys.

While your school may not be slated for a visit from a high-wattage celebrity, you can take some cues and ideas from Turnaround Arts and similar arts-integration programs to add excitement to your curriculum—and boost retention of core concepts. “The more senses you use when you learn, the more the learning goes into long-term memory,” says educational consultant Patti Drapeau, author of Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving. Arts integration is a valuable way to boost learning, Drapeau argues, because children remember what they learn when they are active and thinking creatively about the content.

The risk of change in the classroom, and the time spent to make it happen successfully, can be well worth it. One school that has adopted the Turnaround Arts program, Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, had such serious -discipline problems that security guards roamed the hallways with walkie-talkies to maintain order. A new principal made the decision to replace the guards with art, dance, and music teachers.

The net effect? In 2013, the school ranked among the top two percent in Boston in its rate of student improvement and was removed from turnaround status.

“It’s got all this energy and happiness and creativity, but there’s a sense of real discipline and purpose,” says Rachel Goslins, executive director of PCAH.

Now It’s Your Turn Convinced?

Try out these ideas and best practices for incorporating a more vibrant arts program into your school or classroom.

Try out living tableaus. This Turnaround Arts technique for students of all ages, and particularly those in grades K–5, draws upon theater. Students freeze in place to depict a scene from a story, represent a moment in history, or describe a complicated vocabulary word, says Brien. The technique can also be used to illustrate a scientific idea.

Tondra Odom-Owens, a third-grade teacher at Savoy Elementary in Washington, D.C., has used tableaus to powerful effect. After reading Tomie dePaola’s The Legend of the Bluebonnet, her students created tableaus to retell the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

Tie the arts to the curriculum in inventive ways. Third graders at Chalmers School of Excellence in Chicago created salt--watercolor paintings to illustrate the different phases of the water cycle. At Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, students moved and danced in a performance of a butterfly’s life cycle.

Use visual thinking strategies. “Before starting a new social studies or language arts unit, introduce a piece of artwork related to the unit theme and have students silently observe for a minute, then describe what they see,” says Alicia Robinson, music teacher and arts team leader at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Ask them what story the picture tells.”

Students might ponder the setting or what the main character is thinking, for instance. They can imagine the correct answer and write about it. It’s okay if they invent details—the idea is to get them started thinking.

“The students will have a completely new and different insight into the unit,” Robinson says of this technique, a Turnaround Arts favorite.

Use the arts to enhance special education. At Roosevelt, a student with significant learning disabilities was cast as the lead of the school musical, which provided a strong incentive for her to read and memorize her lines. The student made impressive gains in reading.

The arts can change the culture of an entire school, infecting it with an electricity that wasn’t there before and compelling students to take ownership of their learning. Just ask Azuscena Rodriguez, a fifth grader at Mary Chapa. Do kids like coming to school more now since Turnaround Arts arrived? “Yes!” she says, brightening and laughing shyly, as if her secret has been discovered. “They definitely do.”


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Photos: Courtesy of Turnaround Arts