First Lady and Kerry Washington Push for the Arts

They visited a school that is benefiting from a White House program to boost academic achievement.

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Kerry Washington, Savoy Elementary School students and Michelle Obama (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Students from the Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C., crooned, somersaulted, Lindy Hopped and re-enacted scenes from the 1970s film Grease on Friday as a way to flex their school's new muscles in arts education. They performed in the gym to an audience of their peers and two distinguished ladies cheering in the front row: first lady Michelle Obama and actress Kerry Washington.

The showcase demonstrated the school's involvement in Turnaround: Arts, a new initiative to beef up -- and in some cases introduce -- arts programs to eight low-performing public schools across the nation. The public and private committees that are funding this endeavor hope that student exposure to dance, music, drama and visual-arts classes will boost academic achievement.

Kerry Washington is a celebrity ambassador to the Savoy school -- D.C.'s Turnaround school -- which, she told reporters during a brief press conference after the performance, is quite fitting because she is known for "fixing" crises in the nation's capital as Olivia Pope in the hit ABC series Scandal. The actress said that chronically underperforming schools need fixing, too, and she is convinced that arts programming should be included in reform strategies that attempt to do so. Other celebrities that serve as program ambassadors to Turnaround schools include Alfre Woodard, Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker. 

Never one to shy away from physical activity, Michelle Obama demonstrated her commitment to the program when she extended her arms and lifted her legs alongside prekindergarten students who giggled at the sight of the first lady participating in their dance moves. In her brief address to the students, Mrs. Obama, who is the honorary chairwoman of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities -- the federal committee that spearheads Turnaround, and of which Washington is one of several celebrity members -- slightly retooled her education stump speech and gave a hat tip to the school's use of arts education as a way to help students perform at higher levels.

"I'm impressed by the improvements that you've made," the first lady said, after telling the students that they should work hard because "no one is born smart," and from time to time they are "going to fail but should keep going anyway."

The arts-education focus adds another dimension to the national conversation about changing public education. There is an age-old argument in education-reform circles about what to do with schools that have significant populations of students who are not clearing proficiency levels in reading and math. Do you tack on extra hours of instruction in primary courses like reading, math and science? Some schools do -- but at times that has meant eliminating programs that are often deemed subsidiary or recreational, like arts classes.

Kathy Fletcher, Turnaround's program director, told The Root that ratcheting up arts programs creates an environment for academic success because it cultivates opportunities for teachers, parents and students to be in the same space in order to start the dialogue about academic achievement. She says that teachers at the Turnaround school in Des Moines, Iowa, sign parents up for parent-teacher conferences during their musical concerts. 

Mrs. Obama and Kerry Washington's support for these initiatives in a struggling D.C. public school is of particular significance, since some say that the District's education-reform solutions have been myopic in including only charter schools -- independent public schools that bestow power on public and private groups that operate separately from traditional school districts. Approximately 40 percent of public schools in Washington, D.C., are charter schools, a chunky market share. The Savoy Elementary School is adjacent to the Thurgood Marshall Academy, one of the well-known charter schools in the District because of its 100 percent college-acceptance rate. Savoy and Thurgood share a gym and schoolyard.

George Stevens Jr., PCAH's co-chairman, referenced the communities that are often most affected by failing schools as he spoke about how helpful Mrs. Obama's support has been in this effort.  

“Michelle Obama connects to these people," he told reporters. "They feel this identity with her."

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