Students in ‘Turnaround Arts’ program hold a talent show in the White House


Students from the Savoy Elementary School in Washington perform during the White House Talent Show. First lady Michelle Obama was in the audience for the show. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The first White House talent show was a little retro and at turns kitchy and cute. Children, invited to show how arts education had helped their underperforming schools, were the main attraction. But a few celebrities assisted.

The East Room, typically a showcase for a portrait of Martha Washington, was bathed in neon orange, green and red lights and served as a stage on Tuesday afternoon. A piano player sat in the corner.

Michelle Obama, who was seated front row, appeared to be thrilled as she took in performances by children from six of the eight schools selected to participate in an arts program backed by the federal government. The students moved to African beats, played tribal tunes on xylophones and performed spoken word pieces during a program that lasted an hour and a half.

A handful of celebrities joined in, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Alfre Woodard, who volunteer as arts mentors at schools through the Turnaround Arts program. The program and the talent show that celebrated it came about through a partnership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Education Department and the White House two years ago to see whether arts education could give a boost to failing elementary and middle schools.

For three years, eight schools were “adopted” by a well-known artists and collectively received $14.7 million to institute arts and other programs. That money came from a range of sources, and about $2 million of it went to arts alone.

The program is working, Obama said, and next year it will grow from eight schools to 35.

“With the help of this program and some school improvement grants, math and reading scores have gone up in these schools, attendance is up, enrollment is up, parent engagement is up, suspensions have plummeted, and two of the schools in our pilot improved so dramatically that they are no longer in ‘turnaround’ status,” she said. “That’s amazing.”

After the first lady’s remarks, students from Lame Deer Jr. High School on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana performed with musicians from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Girls from Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Ore., sang “You’re Never Fully Dressed” from the play “Annie” with Sarah Jessica Parker. A trio of teenage boys from Noel Community Arts School in Denver crooned “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to the first lady.

Obama swayed throughout the performances, clapped her hands, sang along and convinced her husband to swing by.

“Thank you, honey,” she said to him, when he popped up at the end of the performances to congratulate the students, who came from schools in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Washington, D.C. Students at two of the schools displayed photography or other forms of visual art.

“I hope that events like this help send a message to school districts, and parents, and governors, and leaders all across this country: You’ve got to support the arts,” President Obama said. “It’s a priority.”

Michelle Obama, who advocates for young Americans to attain education beyond high school, has been a strong supporter of the arts. Last year, she visited Savoy Elementary in the District with “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, who serves as arts mentor to the school.

For the Obamas, talent shows are a family tradition that date back to the first lady’s childhood. The large Robinson family could not afford a big gift exchange, so everyone would put gifts in a bag. Each person would pull a gift and would be expected to take part in a kind of talent show by singing, dancing or telling a joke.

The family still holds the talent show each Christmas.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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