The orchestra students at Bunker Hill Elementary School plucked and bowed their violins, violas and cellos one afternoon this week as they performed Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” for classmates at an assembly.
But this was no ordinary concert. Two special guests joined in: violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The world-famous musicians spent Tuesday afternoon swaying to the rhythmic sounds of first-graders beating sangba drums. They watched students act out stories. And the orchestra students learned how Bell and Ma get rid of nerves during performances: Ma pretends it’s his birthday party. Bell imagines everyone in the audience sitting on toilets.
“You played so well,” Ma told about 20 orchestra students during rehearsal for the assembly. “I love the energy. It was great.”
Ma and Bell visited the Northeast D.C. school through a program known as Turnaround Arts, which aims to give underperforming schools more resources for arts and music.
When faced with financial pressures, schools often cut arts and music funding to focus resources on math and reading. But Turnaround Arts, in about 70 schools around the country, was founded on the idea that every student, not just those in wealthy neighborhoods, should have access to the arts. Experts say the arts are essential for a well-rounded education and can help students succeed in other academic areas.
Most of Bunker Hill’s 156 students come from low-income families. The school has a step team and offers art classes and music lessons through the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. But every day, teachers also incorporate art and music into subjects including math, reading and science.
“It’s not just about more arts and more music. While those things are awesome and our students get so much from those classes, it’s really about finding a way to engage students in learning,” said school Principal Kara Kuchemba.
In a fifth-grade math class, students were learning how to use Pop-Tart and Cheez-It boxes to build a “galimoto,” a toy vehicle found in parts of Africa. When Bell visited the classroom, the students were adding wheels to their galimotos. The students had to make sure all four wheels had the same circumference. Otherwise the cars would not work.
Justice Bell-Perry, 11, recalled that in her fourth-grade math class last year, her teacher took down the classroom’s ceiling tiles and asked the students to paint an image. The paintings had to incorporate various angles, and they had to be symmetrical.
This sort of art-infused curriculum is what Turnaround Arts believes will improve student outcomes, said Kathy Fletcher, the national director of the program. And it’s that type of instruction that keeps students engaged in class, Kuchemba said.
“I want school to be a place of joy for our kids,” Kuchemba said.
Founded in 2011, Turnaround Arts began under President Barack Obama as an initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and was promoted by then-first lady Michelle Obama. Now run by the Kennedy Center, the program helps provide arts education and supplies in elementary and middle schools deemed in need of improvement. It is primarily funded by private donors.
As part of Turnaround Arts, actors, artists and musicians, like Ma and Bell, “adopt” schools where they volunteer and visit with students and teachers. Singer Josh Groban raised $80,000 for a mosaic mural at the school he serves, and dancer Misty Copeland took students from hers to the ballet.
Ma is also the “Turnaround artist” for Noyes Elementary in Northeast, and Bell also works with Savoy Elementary School in Southeast, which was one of the first schools to join the program.
Growing up in Indiana, Bell said, the schools there weren’t known for great music programs, but he was lucky to have parents who nurtured his curiosity for music. He began taking violin lessons at age 4, after his parents found that he was making music by plucking rubber bands that he had stretched across dresser drawers.
“There is art and music in every culture around the world, so to leave it out of school, where kids spend eight hours a day, seems absolutely absurd to me,” Bell said. “Yet it's the first thing people want to cut because they don’t see the immediate need for it.”
Not every school is able to benefit from funding and support from a program like Turnaround Arts, but Ma said that shouldn’t stop educators from getting creative. They can make music using spoons and buckets, he said. The students who performed with Bunker Hill’s step team didn’t have any fancy equipment, Ma noted.
“That took coordination, the right amount of energy and flow. That’s an art form on its own,” Ma said. “If you have the luxury of paints and instruments, that’s great, but art can be done with just your body.”