Turnaround Arts adopts more struggling schools in California

First graders Sherlyn Asuna, left, and Jaden Armstrong practice a holiday song at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Compton on Friday morning, Dec. 5, 2014.
First graders Sherlyn Asuna, left, and Jaden Armstrong practice a holiday song at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Compton on Friday morning, Dec. 5, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Students from Compton's Martin Luther King Elementary School got the chance to recite an original spoken word poem during a special talent show at the White House on Wednesday. 

"We grow our wings, with words, with art!" they chanted in closing, as the audience went wild with applause. 

The students performed along with kids from schools around the country as part of an annual celebration of the Turnaround Arts program. It's a White House initiative that brings arts instruction to low-performing elementary and middle schools with the goal of improving every aspect of learning. The local branch, Turnaround Arts: California, announced today that it's adopting six more schools, bringing the state count up to 16. 

"It’s really exciting," said Malissa Shriver, executive director of Turnaround Arts: California. "Enrollment is up, attendance is up, kids are happier, the teachers are happier. The campuses look beautiful because there’s evidence of student learning everywhere – artwork in the hallways and murals. It’s really a comprehensive turnaround."

The White House program started five years ago and Turnaround Arts: California got off the ground in 2014 with ten schools stretching from the Hoopa Indian reservation in Northern California all the way to San Diego.

Over the past two years, California schools have shown great improvements, a few receiving state distinctions. Burbank Elementary School in the Bay Area city of Hayward went from being the lowest-performing to highest-performing elementary school in the district. 

Here are the six new schools: 

"There’s a lot of need at my school, and one of the things that I know for sure is that the arts motivates academics," said Joyner Elementary principal Dr. Akida Kissane Long.

Schools in the program are in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools statewide.  The program provides music and arts supplies, professional development for classroom teachers and connects schools with famous mentors like actress Kerry Washington and singer Smokey Robinson. School districts must agree to provide one or more full-time, credentialed arts specialist for the school. 

"My teachers are thrilled because they know that it’s not just doing to be the three Rs [reading, writing and arithmetic]," said Long. "It’s going to be the whole child."

More than 60 schools across the country are part of the White House initiative, established by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. A study of the national program found that – on average – schools improved 22 percent in math and 12 percent in reading between 2011-2014. It also found dramatic increases in attendance and decreases in suspension rates. 

"No one should ever think that dance and music and theater are a luxury," First Lady Michelle Obama said at the talent show. "I say this every year because for so many of our students, they are necessities, they are the reason these kids show up."

Obama acknowledged the need to increase access to arts education. After she leaves the White House, the program will be transferred to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.