First Lady Secures Long-Term Funding for Turnaround Arts Program

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(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

One of Michelle Obama’s key arts programs, Turnaround Arts, will continue after she leaves the WhiteHouse. The program started five years ago to bring high-quality music, theater, dance, and visual arts instruction to underperforming schools. The program will be housed at the Kennedy Center.

The program now functions in 49 schools across the country, and it is premised on the idea that arts should occupy a central place in the education of all children, not just as a hobby or extracurricular for wealthier school districts.

“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.”

Krissah Thompson of The Washington Post writes that the Obamas are worried that future administrations may have other priorities and devalue arts education. Thus, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities said it will work with the Kennedy Center to ensure the longevity of the Turnaround Arts program. The Kennedy Center will work to raise $3 million each year to operate the program.

Mrs. Obama has accredited her early exposure to the arts with boosting her own accomplishments. Though she grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago with limited access to the city’s cultural life, her parents still took her to see the orchestra and enrolled her in piano lessons. She firmly believes that arts can motivate and inspire children in ways other subjects cannot.

“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,” she said in 2013 as she presented the Oscar for best-picture at the Academy Awards.

To date, Mrs. Obama has recruited nearly 60 A-list entertainers with Turnaround schools. Singer Josh Groban used his website to raise $80,000 for a mosaic mural at a school, and dancer Misty Copeland took students to see a professional ballet. Other stars, as noted by Katherine Skiba of The Los Angeles Times, like Paula Abdul and Tim Robbins, attended a talent show at the White House to see some of the performance facilitated by Turnaround Arts.

Schools that have implemented Turnaround Arts have seen tangible benefits. Many of these schools have reported increased student engagement, reduced disciplinary actions, and improved morale. The director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Megan Beyer, stated that after Savoy Elementary, a struggling school in Washington D.C., implemented Turnaround Arts, the school witnessed a rise in students’ test scores.

Next year, according to The Chicago Tribune, the number of schools participating in the program will grow to 68 with 45,000 participating students. White House involvement “is certainly important because it demonstrates that this is something that really matters,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “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.”