Emmy nominated actress, Kerry Washington, star of the ABC hit series Scandal, recently visited Warren Lane Elementary School in Inglewood, CA. She is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) which has a signature program entitled Turnaround Arts. Under this initiative, thirty-five underachieving schools in the nation, are partnered with celebrities who assist with integrating arts into the curriculum in order to improve academic achievement.
Washington tells how vital the arts were to her growing up. “I always joke that for me arts programs were like a third parent because my parents worked full time. Rather than being a latch key kid, I spent a lot of time in dance classes, choirs and the local children’s theatre company. All of those activities helped to keep me busy growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic.” She continues, “To have somewhere to go that was a productive place for me to channel all of my hyperactivity was a great thing.”
Though Washington became an actress, she stresses that Turnaround Arts is not about training the next generation of artists, it’s about creating better learners. “There’s an assumption that we’re trying to create more artists so people tend to try and let arts education be an elective, an extra that you sprinkle on top of math, science, reading and history. However, what we’ve learned through research is that the arts is not sprinkles on a cupcake; the arts is actually the key to unlocking all of our most serious issues in education.”
Issues that plague the participating schools that are in either poverty stricken or rural areas include low attendance rates, behavior problems, low standardized test scores as well as students who aren’t reading at their proper grade level. Washington stresses that arts programs are one of the most affective ways to eradicate these issues. “When there are arts in the schools, kids show up, they are more engage in the learning process, they misbehave less and they want to graduate. This really isn’t about how to find the next superstars, it’s about how do we help these kids get the education that is their birthright in this country?”
Jessicka Mears, the principal at Warren Lane Elementary School comments, “The parents are very excited about Warren Lane Elementary’s participation in the program. In just the first few months of school this year, parents have come out in record numbers to see their students perform. More and more, parents are seeking opportunities for their children to regularly participate in performances or join the newly formed choir.” She continues, “Since becoming a Turnaround Arts partner school, we have seen increased student and parent participation through our arts programs. Staff have also stepped up to support the program, and we are becoming a stronger team.”
Turnaround Arts was launched by the White House in 2012. Last year, Washington worked with Savoy Elementary School in Washington, DC which has been hailed one of the most improved in the initiative.
On what she’s learned from participating in the program, Washington says, “It’s exciting to watch a kid embrace their own sense of possibility. So many kids today feel extremely limited by their environment. When you help them get in touch with their creativity and their potential, they begin to realize that they have the power to create new circumstances.”
She continues, “Kids are understanding that they have the capacity to be innovative, break barriers and change statistics in their community and in their lives. Watching them blossom into people who are excited to learn, grow and achieve is a spectacular gift.”
In addition to Washington, celebrities including Forest Whitaker, Marc Anthony, Russell Simmons, Alfre Woodard and Sarah Jessica Parker are amongst the numerous artist mentors.
Executive Director of Turnaround Arts: California, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver comments, “We’re thrilled to see these students be so engaged in dance, music, visual arts and theater education. Kerry Washington is a leader, an inspiration, and we are so proud of the work she is doing with both our teachers and students.”
Washington visits Warren Lane Elementary several times a year in addition to sending the students video messages. During her recent visit, she allowed the students to ask her ten questions ranging from her birthday to her favorite book. Each participant also had to answer his or her own question. On her style of engagement with the students Washington says, “It’s not about sitting around and listening to a lecture, its about knowing if you have questions, your answers about who you are, are just as important as my answers about who I am.”
One of the upcoming events Washington is planning for the students at Warren Lane includes a trip to the Chocolate Nutcraker produced by Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy. Washington says this about the production, “It’s a great way to get exposed to a whole new world of dance and performance. It’s wonderful to be able to bring communities together and increase kids access and awareness.”