Sections / Articles

Turning Around Schools With Art

Principal, September/October 2012 Web Exclusive
Web Resources

Educators at eight persistently low-achieving schools seek to give new meaning to the term “turnaround artists.”

Patrick Pope, principal of Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C., possesses valuable experience in using the power of the arts as a tool to engage students and encourage kids to produce high-quality work. Pope came to Savoy after a successful 12-year tenure at a middle school that built a premier arts and music program.

Arts education infusion helps “children find ways to express themselves, learn about what discipline really is and how to produce good work, and encounter success,” Pope says.

On Pope’s new journey to use the arts as a tool to turn around Savoy, he will be joined by seven peers from across the country whose schools have all been selected by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) for its innovative Turnaround Arts initiative. The initiative is a living laboratory that tests research showing that at-risk students have the most to gain from arts-infused education.

Ambassadors of Hope

“Part of our mission in a turnaround school is to be ambassadors of hope and ambassadors of what motivates teachers and children to be engaged in their school,” says Pope, whose school is located in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood—across the river and a world away from a metropolitan region that has the nation’s best-educated population.

Funded largely by private-sector partners, PCAH is deploying a “swat team” of talented school leaders, arts educators, professionals, and big-name artists into the eight elementary and middle schools, including Savoy. The schools—located in New Orleans; Denver; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Oregon; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Lame Deer, Montana—all receive federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding. Over the next two years, the initiative will flood the schools with leadership and staff training, art supplies, musical instruments, arts programs, and community arts events—and help them leverage SIG funding to support arts education.

“It is not our position that the arts are a silver bullet in any school, much less schools like this which have endemic, long-term, really deep problems on a number of levels,” says Rachel Goslins, PCAH executive director. “It is our position that when you use the arts as a core pillar of school improvement, and if you use them well and in an effective and integrated way, your results are going to be better than if you didn’t.”

A Path to Success

Developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Policy Council, the initiative aims to demonstrate that high-quality, integrated arts education boosts academic achievement, motivates student learning, and improves school culture in the context of school reform.

“The arts need to be taken seriously,” Goslins says, “not only as a core academic subject matter, which they are, but also and separately as a really effective way to get to where we’re trying to go, which is kids who are engaged, who come to school, who are excited about school, who feel like successes at something, who learn skills such as discipline, collaboration, and creativity that transfer to their other academic subjects. The arts are a part of that path.”

What Principals Need to Know About the Turnaround Schools Initiative

  • Powerful Tool. The arts are a “credible, proven, and effective approach to school improvement,” PCAH’s Goslins says. “What I want every principal—not just the principals who are heroically struggling in the lowest-performing schools—to take away from Turnaround Arts is that the arts are part of the solution,” Goslins emphasizes. “This is not an added bonus for kids. It isn’t a lovely way to enrich their lives and help them find their talents—although that is also true. This needs to be considered along with all of the other tools that are part of the national conversation about how to fix problems in the schools.”
  • Networks. Savoy’s Pope relies on a small support network of people outside of his school system that have helped him to “navigate places where I felt that we needed to go,” Pope says. Principals can cultivate these supporters in their communities and through networking at NAESP and other professional gatherings.
  • An Approach to Raising Test Scores. Narrowing the curriculum and drilling students in test prep six hours a day is not the only approach to raising standardized test scores. “You can do it by providing them an engaged, creative, exciting curriculum and educational experiences,” Goslins says.
  • Valuable Data Being Gathered and Analyzed. Booz Allen Hamilton, a leading business consulting firm, has agreed to conduct a two-year evaluation of the eight Turnaround Arts schools. The goal is to measure the impact of the arts as an added value in schools that are undergoing a “tremendous amount of education reform effort,” according to Goslins.

Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.