One of Michelle Obama’s key arts programs will continue after she leaves the White House. Management of Turnaround Arts, started five years ago to bring high-quality music, theater, dance and visual arts instruction to underperforming schools, will be housed at the Kennedy Center and carry its imprimatur.
The first lady plans to make the announcement Wednesday during her second White House talent show, starring students from the at-risk schools adopted by Turnaround Arts. The program — now in 49 schools across the country — is based on the idea that arts should have a central place in the education of all children, not just a luxury for wealthy districts.
Turnaround Arts has been a favorite of the first family, now working to cement its legacy as time runs out on President Obama’s administration. Michelle Obama, in particular, has supported projects that link children from less-privileged backgrounds to the arts through events at the White House as well as underwriting arts classes at low-income elementary and middle schools.
Fearing that future administrations may have other priorities, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities said it will bring in the Kennedy Center as a partner to make sure the Turnaround Arts program is not dismantled. The committee will keep a hand in its work, helping the Kennedy Center raise $3 million a year to operate the program.
“Both the president and Mrs. Obama are people who love music and had music in their lives all the time,” said Tina Tchen, assistant to the president and chief of staff to the first lady. “They are both great readers and love literature and have seen how that brings a richer cultural life to a young student.”
The first lady has credited early exposure to the arts with boosting her own accomplishments. Though she grew up in working class Chicago, her parents took her to the orchestra and enrolled her in piano lessons, and she believes the arts can motivate children.
“Every day, through engagement in the arts, our children learn to open their imaginations, to dream just a little bigger and to strive every day to reach those dreams,” the first lady said in 2013 as she presented the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.
She has recruited nearly 60 A-list entertainers to volunteer with Turnaround schools. Singer Josh Groban used his website to raise $80,000 for a mosaic mural at the school he serves, and dancer Misty Copeland took the students at her school to the ballet. Paula Abdul, Tim Robbins and several others will attend the White House talent show Wednesday to watch the students they mentor perform.
Obama has attended arts programs at Savoy Elementary, a Turnaround school in Southeast Washington that had been struggling academically. In the year after arts instruction was substantially enhanced — and actress Kerry Washington, a regular visitor, took the school under her wing — test scores began to rise. Other Turnaround schools have reported increased student engagement, reduced disciplinary actions and improved morale, said Megan Beyer, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
“I’ve seen schools before and schools after, and it’s sort of the difference between a house and home. There’s art on the walls. You see parents coming in,” said Beyer, whose committee will continue to provide resources, such as donated instruments and art supplies.
Next year, the number of schools in the program will grow to 68, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said. White House involvement “is certainly important because it demonstrates that this is something that really matters,” Rutter said. “The knowledge that the most powerful individual in the free world cares deeply about how these schools are doing and that the arts programming is helping those schools improve makes a difference.”