By Marianne McCarthy
When Principal Rachel Clark Messineo (MA-CEL, ’08) received an invitation to the White House this past May, she knew her school had been chosen as a recipient of an arts education initiative that could help make a difference in her school. But the students of Burbank Elementary and the rest of San Diego didn’t know for sure until they watched the event streaming live from the White House. Of course, they couldn’t be more proud and excited, as are we at Fielding.
Burbank Elementary is one of only 35 schools across the nation to participate in the Turnaround Arts Initiative, an assistance program that provides training, development, and workshops to ensure that the arts are an available avenue to success for all students.
Underperforming School Struggles to Change
Led by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, together with local partners, Turnaround Arts aims to help failing schools implement high quality arts education to “turnaround” the pervasive problems found in high-poverty, chronically underperforming schools. By using the arts as a strategic tool, students are engaged while they learn 21st century skills critical to their success.
Burbank Elementary is located in the “Barrio Logan” area of San Diego, serving 350 students, all of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged. In 2010, it was identified as performing in the lowest 5% of all California schools.
“We’ve been a chronically under-performing school for many years working hard to make a difference, but our scores just go up a tiny bit each year, so it’s hard work. Our kids are low income, second-language learners, part of a very transient population. There are lots of things working against us, but we’re really hoping that integrating arts will be an avenue to attract students to stay at our school,” says Rachel.
She explains that due to limited funding Burbank Elementary doesn’t offer any on-going activities like some of the other more affluent schools in her district. When funds get cut, it’s usually the arts and extracurricular activities that go first. Burbank doesn’t have funds to provide anything other than the core classes: reading, science, math, and history. Kids who struggle in these areas typically don’t want to come to school, says Rachel.
“If we had an acting class, or a singing class, or a dance class, they’d be more excited about coming to school and could learn through song or dance. They could learn through acting, building sets, things like that. So we’re looking at integrating arts as a way to improve our academics which will ultimately improve self-esteem, confidence, and attendance…maybe we could even become a school of choice for new students.”
Believing in the Value of Arts Education
She believes that there is a connection between arts education and academic achievement. She has a personal connection and passion for arts education as she has played the flute, piccolo, and piano since elementary-school age. She has experienced first-hand how arts education increases student motivation, confidence, and teamwork.
Associated with the school since 2009, Rachel has moved up the ladder from teacher to grant coordinator to just last year being appointed principal.
“As I began my journey toward an administrative position, I started utilizing materials that I had learned at Fielding. It just kept sinking in deeper and deeper,” says Rachel. “Now that I’m a principal, I frequently draw upon the readings, the books, the activities, and the collaborative tasks that were assigned. Facilitators said, ‘Trust the process,’ and several years later, I see what they meant.”
Turnaround Arts Equips Teachers with Powerful Tools
According to the Turnaround Arts website, placing the arts as the heart and soul of a school gives leadership and teachers powerful tools to improve school climate and culture, increase student and parent engagement, which ultimately contributes to improved academic achievement and the successful turnaround of a failing school.
Turnaround Arts began as a pilot program with eight schools, and celebrating that success is what the White House event was all about. First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a talent show in the East Room of the White House, which was transformed into an old fashioned school auditorium. Students from the program’s inaugural schools showed off their skills singing, dancing, making music, and reciting poetry. The First Lady also announced the expansion of the program, from eight pilot schools to 35 schools, 10 from California. Celebrities Sara Jessica Parker and Alfre Woodard, artist-mentors who were paired with one of the original eight schools, were there to help promote the event. President Barack Obama even made a surprise appearance before the show concluded—and Rachel and her superintendent got to shake his hand at the event.
Burbank Gets Assigned an Artist-Mentor
This month, Burbank Elementary meets their new artist-mentor, Grammy award-winning musician Jason Mraz, who lives in the San Diego area. Mraz will work with Rachel and Burbank teachers to infuse the arts into curriculum and campus culture over the next three years.
“We have planned to learn how to play the guitar and ukulele, and Jason plays both!” says Rachel. “Our hope is that we can have a concert with him at the end of the year with students all playing one of his songs.”
Mraz said in a statement, “I’m humbled by the opportunity to support and represent a school in our country and my local community that will greatly benefit from the support of a vibrant arts education program. The arts are the key to life and the Turnaround Arts program will open the doors for youth to life, love, creativity and endless imagination.”