Many of the top artists, musicians and creative minds in America support Turnaround Arts in its mission to bring the arts into at-risk schools.
In Orange County, Elizabeth Segerstrom and Nigel Lythgoe have teamed up to help two Santa Ana schools. Kids performing at a middle school talent show in Southern California recently can be excused if they were a bit more nervous than normal. Being on stage can be a challenge for any young performer, but these students at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana weren’t only appearing before their peers, parents and teachers. The talent show judge was none other t. As the executive producer, co-founder and judge on Emmy-award winning show So You Think You Can Dance, Lythgoe is the king of the modern televised talent show.
So what was Lythgoe doing at a school in the heart of urban Orange County? Helping kids achieve through the arts.
He is one of many artist mentors participating in Turnaround Arts, a non-profit program that brings arts education programs and supplies to some of the lowest performing elementary and middle schools in the country. These resources help schools improve attendance, parent engagement, student motivation, and academic achievement.
“It never ceases to amaze me how the arts instill self-confidence and discipline,” Lythgoe says. “It takes a brave person to stand up and perform in front of their peers and a quality of spirit that will help them through their entire lives. The Willard talent competition showed me how much the school appreciates Turnaround Arts and what it has done, not only to assist the pupils in their artistic nature, but in their academic progress, as well. Thereby creating not only better students but better human beings, too.”
Created in 2011 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and now run nationally by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Turnaround Arts infuses struggling schools with arts and music based learning throughout the curriculum.
The idea is that high-quality and integrated arts education can strengthen school reform efforts, boost academic achievement and increase student engagement for students and teachers facing some of the toughest educational challenges in the country.
Turnaround Artists are creative professionals who adopt Turnaround Arts schools over the length of the program, working directly with students and teachers, engaging parents and the school community, and highlighting the positive impact of the arts on their school’s transformation.
Turnaround Arts: California was co-founded in 2014 by renowned architect Frank Gehry and arts education advocate Malissa Shriver as a nonprofit to administer Turnaround Arts statewide. There are 17 Turnaround Arts partner schools in California and 73 schools nationwide in 17 states and Washington, D.C., reaching some 38,000 students.
Artists are expected to visit the schools they adopt at least once per year. Lythgoe has been with the kids six times or more. He came to the school for two days of auditions for the talent show. He brought Santa Ana students to an American Ballet Theater performance of The Nutcracker at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and helped arrange a performance of the Sierra Prepatory Jazz Band at the arts center.
Nigel Lythgoe was joined in the Turnaround Arts program in Orange County philanthropist Elizabeth Segerstrom. She learned of the program through her friendship with Frank Gehry and Malissa Shriver. After a site visit to help select what was expected to be a Santa Ana school to join the program, Segerstrom chose to support the inclusion of two schools: Willard Intermediate and Sierra Prepatory Academy.
“Turnaround Arts is so vital to our community because it nurtures and develops the most important elements of a young student’s critical thinking skills – the arts!” Elizabeth Segerstrom says. “The arts connect us to who we are, how we relate to others, and how we see ourselves as part of a bigger picture.”
In one of many fortuitous turns involving the Segerstrom family, Elizabeth Segerstrom recalled that her late husband Henry Segerstrom and his sister Ruth Ann Moriarty both attended Willard in the days before the family founded South Coast Plaza and donated the land where Segerstrom Center for the Arts now sits.
“Arts programs unfortunately are the first to go with budget cuts in our school systems,” says Segerstrom. “Through Turnaround, we’re able to give back to these departments directly and hopefully inspire the next generation of performers to grace both the stages at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, as well as many others internationally. Whether it’s music, dance or fine art, I’ve watched first hand as Turnaround’s commitment to our community’s students almost immediately increases student’s confidence, ambition, and focus.”
Ruth Ann Moriarty and Elizabeth Segerstrom joined Nigel Lythgoe at the Willard talent show. The young man who won first place the evening of the competition is self-taught on the piano, and performed music he composed combining songs he likes, commercial jingles and original music. The result was captivating. The Segerstrom family offered him a scholarship to continue his training.
Becoming proficient in the arts is only part of the mission of Turnaround Arts, though.
Turnaround Arts trains teachers in methods to integrate the arts into any subject matter taught; it’s not just about adding an art class to the curriculum.
It’s an approach to thinking that involves visual thinking and inquiry. For example, students will be shown a work of art, and a teacher will ask, “What’s going on in this picture?”
Students then make observations that they provide evidence to support. The teachers don’t tell the student the title or the artist. They don’t give context at the forefront. Students can say what they think and what they see. Teachers are trained not to lead students toward an end point, or to praise certain answers over the others.
The method helps establish the concept that there are often multiple ways to solve a problem, but one has to show steps that led to the solution.
“Turnaround Arts schools outperformed comparable schools in their city or state that received federal funds for school improvement.”
Patterns of thinking developed by looking at a work of art transfer to reading, mathematics and other courses, experts have found.
Most of the resources Turnaround Arts provides involve professional development training for teachers and administrators and arts experiences and exposures for the kids. It’s not a grant program; they don’t just write a check and say, “buy instruments and everything will be great.”
Turnaround Arts works the lowest performing 5 to 10 percent of America’s elementary and middle schools. A 3-year evaluation of the program released in 2015 found significant improvement in academic achievement (22.55 percent improvement in math proficiency and 12.62 percent improvement in reading proficiency), reduction in disciplinary referrals and increases in attendance, among other findings.
The study found that Turnaround Arts schools outperformed comparable schools in their city or state that received federal funds for school improvement.
The schools engaged in Turnaround Arts have a lot of catching up to do. So while the achievement scores may reveal only 5 percent or so moving into the “exceeding standards” categories, there is much movement out of the bottom categories into the middle, which can be seen as even more impressive. That’s the beginning of an academic journey that arts education can inspire.
All involved believe it’s a journey worth celebrating, including Elizabeth Segerstrom: “I was introduced to all that Turnaround has done in our local schools, and to the many talented and vastly gifted young people in our community simply waiting for the opportunity and forum in which to shine,” she says. “Once given a platform, if even a small one, I’ve watched as their limitless potential grows exponentially. It’s a wonderfully inspiring cause whose fruits are evident and immediate. Our children are enriched and therefore our community is enriched.”