The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities will announce a new Turnaround Arts initiative as a pilot project for eight schools with officials from the White House and U.S. Department of Education. Organizers said they aim to demonstrate new research that shows the arts can help reduce behavioral problems and increase student attendance, engagement and academic success.
The two-year initiative will target eight high-poverty elementary and middle schools. The schools were among the lowest-performing schools in each of their states and had qualified for about $14 million in federal School Improvement Grants from the Obama administration. The arts initiative will bring new training for educators at the Aspen Institute, art supplies and musical instruments totaling about $1 million per year, funded by private foundations and corporate sponsors.
The schools selected for the project are in both urban and rural areas. They are in New Orleans; Denver; Boston; Washington; Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Ore.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Lame Deer, Mont.
Washington, who is starring in the new ABC drama "Scandal," will adopt a District of Columbia school over the next two years. Often there are misconceptions about the role arts play in school, she said, as if they're only the "sprinkles on the icing," Washington told The Associated Press.
"It's not that the arts are something to put on in the final period of the day once all the real work is done," she said. "Arts are actually how we can help them get the real work done."
For example, studies show more music training can help improve student math scores, Washington said.
Artists from the president's committee, including Washington, will present programs to students and teachers, celebrate their successes and help create community partnerships to support their work.
This is believed to be the first federal initiative to examine the role of arts in school reform and will also generate new research looking at how a robust arts program affects students, examining data in each of the eight schools, said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the presidential arts committee.
"It's really hard to find anybody who says arts education is bad for kids," Goslins said. "But there is a huge amount of skepticism that the arts could be an important part of the solution in these schools."
"Sex and the City" star Parker will adopt a school in Portland, and Whitaker will work with students in Des Moines.
Artist Chuck Close, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, dancer Damian Woetzel and actress Alfre Woodard also are adopting schools in the two-year program.
In Montana, Lame Deer Junior High School on a Cheyenne American Indian reservation was one of the neediest schools encountered during the selection process. It's a remote area that has trouble attracting and keeping strong teachers.
"There's an entire school of kids who have never seen a play and have never been to a museum, ever," Goslins said. The initiative can help bridge a divide between the school and traditional tribal arts and culture in the students' homes, she said.
For Washington, whose star has been rising as an actress in recent years since her breakout performance as Ray Charles' wife in the 2004 movie "Ray," arts programs might have made the difference for her growing up in the Bronx at the height of the crack epidemic, she said.
"I literally remember walking to dance class, walking those two blocks from my house and seeing crack vials on the street," Washington said. "I just think, if I wasn't walking to dance class, where would I have been walking? I just don't know."
Children's theater and ballet taught her about collaborating with others, being accountable and thinking outside the box, Washington said. It also kept her from being home alone after school.
"I come from a great family," Washington said. "But it's easy to fall through the cracks without those resources around you, without those extra things that get you excited about learning."