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Watch and listen to Yo-Yo Ma playing cello for starstruck D.C. elementary school kids

The acclaimed cellist visits Noyes Elementary School, part of the Turnaround Arts program, and is greeted by young drummers, dancers and singers giving an adorable performance for their special guest. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

The students at Noyes Education Campus in Northeast D.C. were starstruck.

“Oh my God, Yo-Yo Ma,” a group of first-graders squealed as they awaited the prodigious cellist’s arrival to their school. When he walked in, 6-year-old Enriqueta Bokesa screamed “It’s Yo-Yo Ma!,” jumped from the stairs at the school’s entrance and leaped into Ma’s arms — not the typical reaction the world famous cellist receives before a performance.

But Noyes students had been learning about Ma and his music throughout the school year as part of the Obama administration’s Turnaround Arts program, which aims to help the nation’s most-struggling schools with an infusion of art into the curriculum.

Ma was assigned to be the school’s mentor artist, sending the students a personalized greeting video at the beginning of the academic year. The teachers have exposed the children to his music, his background as a child prodigy, and showed them videos of his performances.

“I was standing right next to him. I was so excited,” said 11-year-old Duane Scott. “He’s amazing.”

The students had prepared at length for Ma’s visit on Thursday, and they played drums, sang, acted, and even treated Ma to a cheerleading performance as he toured the school.

“Can you play another song?” Ma, who was sitting on the floor surrounded by children, asked a line of students playing drums.

Ma then played his cello for the entire student body — a performance met with roaring applause. He later performed for the school’s fifth-graders while they danced and sang around him.

“This is why art’s contribution to society is crucial. There is no better way to awake a child’s imagination than to be able to play, draw, and dance,” Ma said. “There are a lot of core values that are being practiced while doing the acting and singing.”

Noyes is one of nearly 50 schools participating in the Turnaround Arts program, and one of four in D.C. The program targets schools that are the lowest-performing in their states. Most of the students at Noyes qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and just about 25 percent of the students are considered proficient in math and English, according to D.C. standardized test scores. 

The national Turnaround Arts program, which the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities runs, has regional employees who visit schools and advise teachers on how to integrate arts into core subjects like science and math. The program also provides schools with extra art supplies, planning resources, and community art programming.

Students in turnaround arts program hold a talent show in the White House

Studies have found that discipline issues went down at participating schools and that the schools have shown an overall 23 percent improvement in math proficiency and 13 percent improvement in reading proficiency, according to the Obama administration.

Grammy winning musician Esperanza Spalding is scheduled to meet with students at Turner Elementary in Southeast D.C. next week as part of Turnaround Arts. Celebrities including Sarah Jessica Parker, Josh Groban and Forest Whitaker similarly participate in the program and visit schools nationwide.

Ma has visited more than a half-dozen Turnaround Arts schools since the program’s inception in 2012, and he currently serves on the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

“To have a day like this, it’s so important to the students. This day was a dream come true,” Noyes Principal Winston Cox said. “For the children to have someone of Yo-Yo Ma’s stature, I see it as an affirmation. Children need to know that their work is important and it matters.”