Students at Barton Elementary School in San Bernardino were giddy last week as they got ready to perform at the school’s winter program. All 500 students — kindergartners though sixth graders performed, singing and dancing to holiday tunes.
"Their performances last year, they were awesome, but it wasn’t this awesome," said Felton Zanders, one of nearly 300 parents who packed in to watch — more than ever before. He beamed with pride as he watched his kindergartener perform.
"This is a beautiful celebration — definitely after what just happened, you know, not too far from the school, also," Zanders said. "So it’s a beautiful celebration to see everyone smiling again."
Exactly two weeks before this assembly, 14 people were shot and killed at the Inland Regional Center — just 15 minutes from the school. Barton Elementary, like every other school in the district, went on lockdown.
In the weeks since, San Bernardino's schools have been figuring out how to talk to students about what happened and how to move on. Barton has since has stepped up its security procedures and things are returning to normal.
But staff also found that one of the best ways to help their students cope was already a big part of their curriculum: the school's arts program.
School counselor Jamie Hose said she and the rest of the staff were ready to do a lot of work with worried students after the shooting. But it turns out, she didn’t have to.
"It was — I don’t want to say smooth; that's not the right word. But it felt like we had things in place to kind of help with that," Hose said. "So we didn’t have to come up with something to do ... They were already doing things that were therapeutic in that sense."
For two years now, the arts have been a central focus for the school. All students at Barton get classes in visual art, dance and music every week.
Barton is one of 10 schools in the state partnered with Turnaround Arts: California. It’s a branch of the national Turnaround Arts initiative established by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The program brings arts programs to struggling elementary and middle schools with the goal of improving every aspect of learning.
"It’s not just attendance, it’s not just tardies, it’s not just academic performance, it’s emotional health," said Malissa Shriver, the program's executive director.
The program is available to very low-performing schools. According to Turnaround Arts: California, when the school applied, 66 percent of Barton students did not meet state standards in language arts and 56 percent did not meet math standards.
Barton also has a lot of foster kids and families that live in Section 8 housing. For these more vulnerable students, the arts not only enrich academics but also make school more inviting, "enlivening the school, as a community, as a place where people feel safe, where there’s excitement, where there's music and color and it’s alive," Shriver said.
Principal Janice Gordon-Ellis said students now feel more confident expressing themselves.
"When they come here, they feel like they can be creative and explore and tap into those talents that they’re not able to by ... opening up a book," she said.
After a tragedy like the one in San Bernardino, that environment is even more valuable.
Art teacher Grace Schmidt hasn’t planned any specific lessons in response to the nearby shooting.
"You don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on it," said Schmidt. "You need to just be confident that everything’s okay and just keep going."
She said after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she was teaching high school art and did a lot of projects with the students in response to the attacks. But with these younger children, she wanted to move forward.
"These kids are resilient and I think they bounce back," she said.
San Bernardino is slowly bouncing back and for this school community, the winter program was key to ushering in the holiday spirit. And the students weren’t the only ones who took part.
For the first time, the teachers also took the stage to show off their moves. The kids went wild.
And in that moment, a lot of the stress of the past few weeks seemed to be forgotten.