Kechell Settles and her fellow students perform Michael Jackson's Thriller as a group for Cellist Yo Yo Ma during a music and dance workshop with kids at Savoy Elementary in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The morning after virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed for well-heeled Washingtonians last week at the Kennedy Center, he traveled across the Anacostia River to play for a different audience: students at Savoy Elementary, a long-struggling school in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Ma and Damian Woetzel, a former principal with the New York City Ballet, spent more than an hour in a classroom with students, dancing, playing music and rehearsing pieces that they later performed on stage for the whole school.

It was one small part of Principal Patrick Pope’s broader effort to use the arts to transform Savoy, where poverty is pervasive and fewer than one-fifth of students are proficient in math and reading.

As Pope sees it, song, dance, theater and visual arts aren’t tacked-on extras — they’re essential parts of creating a school where students and teachers thrive. Students agree.

“I love school because of dance,” said Jahsiere Ellis, a fourth-grader at Savoy. “We don’t always need academics. We really need more things to get us moving, and dance helps us educate ourselves. Dance is motivation.”

Pope was previously a popular principal at Hardy Middle School in Northwest, where he established a well-regarded arts integration program before then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee reassigned him to a central office post in 2010. He arrived at Savoy on an interim appointment in spring 2011, and he decided to stay.

Since then, with the help of a federal School Improvement Grant, he has hired four part-time dance and music teachers to supplement the two full-time music and art teachers he already had.

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are now getting twice as much art and music time as they did before. Kids hungry for more can join the Savoy Players, a drama group that meets after school and on weekends.

Pope is “no fluffy arts guy,” said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which chose Savoy as one of eight low-performing “Turnaround Arts” schools across the country. “He’s determined, visionary, strategic and in­cred­ibly passionate about what the arts can do for kids.”

Through the Turnaround Arts initiative, Savoy gets some financial support as well as help forming community partnerships and training staff. It also gets White House-level support for arts in public education — no small thing in an age when arts programs have been squeezed by tight school budgets and scrutiny of standardized test scores.

“We are having a national conversation about how to fix our schools, and the arts were not in that conversation,” Goslins said.

Yo-Yo Ma is a member of the president’s committee but came to Savoy last week courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which has brought many professional artists into D.C. schools in recent years.

In the gym at Savoy, Ma played Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings as Woetzel taught students a few simple ballet steps first put together by famed choreographer George Balanchine. Afterward, a student asked the men how they feel when they perform.

“It’s a kind of freedom, but it’s also a deep communication, sharing something you really, really like,” Ma said.

Then students had a chance to share something they really, really like: A dance they first performed in November during a flash mob outside the National Portrait Gallery.

Moving to the music of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” they transformed themselves on stage from elementary-school kids into electrified zombies. The visiting artists smiled and bobbed their heads to the beat.

“They’re concentrating, they’re doing hard work, they’re working as a team. And they have to stand and present themselves as performers,” Woetzel said. “It’s not just kumbaya.”