The Power of the Arts to Turn Around Struggling Schools

Inner City-Inner Child has previously written about the value of arts education, which research shows prepares students for success in school, work, and life in compelling ways. A recent PBS NewsHour broadcast underscores the value of arts education programs for children in low-performing schools, and highlights its promise as a school reform strategy. The broadcast describes how educators are turning around struggling schools using an arts integration approach.

Featured in the broadcast are interviews with teachers, students, and visiting artists—actress Alfre Woodard, musician Graham Nash, and New York Times writer David Brooks—at ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, a New Orleans public charter school that uses the arts to help students build math and other skills. ReNEW is participating in a five year-old national program known as Turnaround Arts, created by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, that seeks to improve the performance of dozens of schools across the country through arts integration.

As the ReNEW program demonstrates, arts integration goes beyond giving children opportunities to participate in arts activities at school (which we know from research is a valuable endeavor in its own right). It involves infusing arts activities throughout the school curriculum to promote children’s mastery of other subjects and skills. In the early childhood context, for example, singing raises awareness of phonetic sounds and rhyming, which helps children develop reading skills; the use of drumming and rhythm sticks teaches one-to-one correspondence, an essential early math skill; African dance teaches sequencing skills necessary for reading comprehension and counting; creative movement engages children’s imagination and triggers visualization, another necessary skill for reading comprehension and mathematical computation; and group work teaches critical listening and cooperation skills.

In the PBS NewsHour broadcast, Samantha King, a teaching artist who works for a consulting company that helped design ReNEW’s curriculum, describes why arts integration has such a powerful effect on students in struggling schools:

The general idea of arts integration is to appeal to different modalities of children’s learning. So they get to get up and use perhaps skills and things that they love or are drawn to, theater, dance, visual arts, music. And we find that, when you put both things together, it sticks. I mean, they remember things. It’s in their body memory.

The early success of ReNEW’s arts integration program supports Ms. King’s assertion. According to the PBS NewsHour broadcast, the school recently ranked as one of the lowest performing schools in the state, but is “now showing measurable signs of educational achievement.” Further, the broadcast reports that nationwide:

  •  half of the Turnaround Arts schools improved their attendance rates;
  •  the average improvement in math proficiency was 22 percent and close to 13 percent in reading;
  •  discipline problems decreased—at ReNEW, for example, suspensions fell by 51 percent; and
  •  students showed increased focus and engagement, including ReNEW ninth grader Jared Mullens, whose personal turnaround through the arts caused him to state, “I will be thinking, what more can I achieve in life, instead of just stopping at this point? When I’m in the arts, I’m focused.”

At Inner City-Inner Child, we see the transformative power of the arts each day in our arts integration work with preschool children in Wards 7 and 8—the most economically disadvantaged communities in Washington, DC. We see how singing and dancing with a book to the tune of an acoustic guitar invests children in the excitement of learning to read the book. We pound along with children on oatmeal can “drums” as they learn different ways to count to five from a master drummer. We routinely hear from teachers how our Dancing With Books program “unlocks” hard-to-reach children and allows teachers to discover their students’ strengths. Our own assessments show that children who participate in Dancing With Books gain skills in five learning areas that are vital to success in kindergarten—literacy, creativity, math, social-emotional development, and physical development.

Kathy Fletcher, the National Director of Turnaround Arts, makes the case in the PBS NewsHour interview for making arts integration programs available to more children in struggling schools:

In the decades past, the first thing to get cut when budgets are going are the arts. And I think a lot of people thought that families would get their own art lessons and dance classes. And there’s about six million kids in this country who are in public schools, charter schools, who don’t have those opportunities, so they don’t get any arts in school. And to have something that positive and that joyful to kick-start literacy and a lot of the other core content subjects, it just seems like a smart way to teach.

Learn more about how our arts education programs for children are having an impact here.

 For more than two decades, Inner City-Inner Child (ICIC) has supported early childhood education in Washington, DC through arts education programs and early childhood development training. We provide quality arts integration and early childhood development programs that serve low-income families in DC. ICIC also provides arts-focused professional development programs for teachers who work in early childhood centers and school-based early childhood education programs in DC. In addition, we engage low-income DC parents in child development activities that help them create learning experiences at home.