Blog: The Educated Reporter

White House School Arts Program Expands to D.C., New York

Yo-Yo Ma performs at the 2008 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. He's one of several dozen artists affiliated with Turnaround Arts. (Source:
By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

A program that pairs celebrities with struggling schools to develop their arts education is expanding to more large cities, The U.S. Department of Education announced today. 

Known as the Turnaround Arts initiative, the $10-million effort pools public and private funds to teach music, dance and other arts disciplines at schools that are considered among the worst in their respective states.

Since debuting in 2012, Turnaround Arts is now featured in nearly 50 schools across 14 states, reaching some 22,000 K-8 students in rural and urban districts including Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

In this latest expansion, The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) is adding the Turnaround Arts initiative to several large districts, including Broward County, Florida, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Participating schools already receive federal school reform dollars through the controversial School Improvement Grant program but had to apply for additional Turnaround Arts dollars. Schools in the arts program create alliances with local cultural institutions and recruit support from leading actors and musicians, but also are given  arts supplies and musical instruments, principal training and professional development. Turnaround Arts schools serve low-income students, with some schools reporting that more than 90 percent of their pupils receive federal lunch subsidies – a proxy for poverty.

Rachel Goslins, executive editor of PCAH, said that the actors and musicians involved in Turnaround Arts are more than figureheads. “They visit several times during the program, working with students, meeting parents and encouraging teachers,” she told EWA, adding that the artists use video conferencing tools to speak to students and send video messages. “Many go above and beyond, helping direct the school musical, host the cast party, or bring classes of students to their studios or to cultural performances.”  

Macy Gray, Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma and Kerry Washington are among the dozens of celebrities associated with the arts initiative, which began as a pilot with eight schools before expanding in 2014.

A team of researchers and analysts commissioned by PCAH to review the program’s impact at eight schools found that students enrolled there experienced slight academic gains on the whole, but showed faster improvement than students at SIG schools without Turnaround Arts. In math, Turnaround Arts students improved their test scores by nearly 23 percent, while students at other SIG schools improved by 16 percent, the report showed. Reading scores for the same students improved by 13 percent on average compared to about 6 percent for students at other SIG schools.

The report also compared the Turnaround Arts schools to how well their districts improved in the same period of time: Math scores were almost even while reading scores were slightly higher among the arts program students.

Beyond test scores, the report found other gains that are often tied to academic success, such as significant spikes in student attendance and a sharp decline in suspensions. The report measured school progress from 2011 to 2014.

A report summarizing the effect Turnaround Arts is having on the schools that joined the program since 2014 isn’t due for another two or three years.

The Ford Foundation, a funder of Education Writers Association, is listed as a financial supporter of the Turnaround Arts initiative.