Editor’s note: The President’s Committee’s Turnaround Arts initiative is a public-private partnership designed to help transform some the nation’s lowest performing schools through arts education. Only eight schools were chosen to receive the initiative, one of which is the King School in Northeast Portland, Oregon. The following is an interview with a teacher at the King School, Ms. Jennifer Choate, about how the Turnaround Arts initiative is enhancing the school experience.
(Ed) Hello Ms. Choate. Can you tell me about the school where you teach?
I’m a kindergarten teacher at King School in Northeast Portland. We have pre-K through 8th grade here. The demographic of our student body is changing rapidly. When I began at King in 2005, over 90% of our population was African-American – there is much more diversity now: almost 35% of students are Hispanic, 55% African-American and 10% White, Asian, or Pacific Islander. In 2010, King was one of the lowest performing schools in Oregon, based on standardized state test scores. Out of thousands of applicants, King was one of five schools to win a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG). The grant lasts three years and this is our final year.
What is the Turnaround Arts grant? How many schools have been funded?
Turnaround Arts isn’t a grant per se. The President’s Committee’s Turnaround Arts initiative is a public-private partnership created to support low-achieving schools by providing professional development, partnering schools with mentor artists, and helping them get mini grants for music, drama, and visual arts supplies. Of the 600 schools nationwide that received SIG grants, eight were chosen for the first Turnaround Arts cohort. The selection process was very competitive. We had to prove both willingness and ability to implement organized arts programs throughout our school.
What kinds of programs have been implemented at your school because of the TA grant?
- African dance for the whole school
- Drama teacher
- TA has a partnership with Crayola – TONS of great stuff, plus product reps come and show us cool activities that work for our kids
- TA has connected us with mini grants that helped us get beautiful, handmade costumes for our African dance performances and several class sets of Ukuleles
- Members of the President’s Council on Arts and Humanities come every year and give very informative hands-on staff developments about how to integrate art into our core subject classes
A well-known artist “adopts” each school as part of the grant? What kinds of involvement has she had at the school?
All eight TA schools get a “celebrity mentor” and we got actress Sarah Jessica Parker. Other celebrity artists at other schools include Forest Whitaker, Yo Yo Ma, and Kerry Washington. Ms. Parker has paid for some cast parties, skyped with our theater club, and she spent a day here last year. She is a great advocate for arts in schools on a political level as well.
This year we got a wonderful bonus celebrity visitor. A kid named Doc Shaw came and read with my class, led drama exercises with the older students, and joined the middle school kids in their African dance class – he even joined them on stage at an assembly. Doc is a young, African-American actor and has been in lots of things that our kids are familiar with, like Suite Life on Deck and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.
What does the school year calendar look like at your school and why?
Most schools in PPS (Portland Public School District) have a two-hour late start every third Wednesday. Because of the SIG grant we have that whole day for professional development and planning. To make up for those missed school days, our school has had an extended school year for the past three summers. “July School” is three weeks of full-day instruction for all King Students. Though the focus of the extra days is on academic instruction, we aren’t obligated to use the district-mandated curriculum so we have more time for field trips and hands-on projects than we do during the regular school year.
Are there programs related to the TA grant that are hard to implement? Are there programs that are running smoother?
Well, we’ve found that performance-based arts (dance and drama) have been easier to get going in our community at this point, but we aim to head toward more of a visual arts focus in the coming years.
Are you seeing any benefits from the increased arts program at your school?
What I’ve noticed the most is a kind of camaraderie that I believe comes from performing together. It really seems to be helping our middle school kids. They shed that awkward adolescent self-consciousness the moment they take the stage to dance or perform a skit. They become a team and they work so well together. I think it’s good for our younger students too – to see that the older kids aren’t always “too cool for school”. This is my favorite thing about working in a Turnaround Arts school.