Source: Turnaround Arts Initiative

Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker has one message for students at Findley Elementary School: Dream big.

The actor made his first visit to Des Moines Monday in conjunction with a two-year program designed to boost student achievement at the north-side school by incorporating the arts in all areas of curriculum.

“As a kid, I didn’t feel I had a chance to do anything much,” Whitaker told a group of fourth-grade students. “Where I lived was a very, very poor neighborhood. Nobody I knew was doing anything like this.”

But the actor — famous for his performances in “The Color of Money,” “Platoon” and “The Last King of Scotland” — said his lifelong interest in the arts helped propel his success. He drew pictures, played the recorder and wrote poems as a child before discovering his love of the theater in college.

Teachers hope the Turnaround Arts initiative under way at Findley will help Des Moines kids map out a similar path to success. The effort kicked off this fall.

Findley is one of only eight schools throughout the nation selected to take part in the federal program, which pairs each school with a famous figure from the arts.

“I think to allow kids to dream … to create an idea of how they see the future of the universe, the future of their lives; there’s nothing more powerful than that,” said Whitaker, who grew up in south central Los Angeles.

Before Whitaker’s Des Moines visit, Findley students had exchanged notes with the 51-year-old actor and chatted over the online video-conferencing tool Skype. Whitaker attended a school arts performance Monday night, and will continue to work with students at the school today.

Since the program’s inception, music, sculpture and acting now play a role in the children’s daily classroom activities.

Students recently crafted a model of the solar system for science class. A claymation movie is in the works as part of a writing assignment.

Such hands-on activities have improved attendance at Findley, said Principal Tara Owen. Discipline referrals have decreased, and parents have become more involved, she added.

“Before our turnaround actions, it was a different kind of instruction that was taking place; it was very teacher-driven,” Owen said. “When you bring the arts into the classroom, we’re handing that over to the kids. They begin to own it. They have the freedom to experiment.”

The Turnaround Arts program was developed by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Domestic Policy Council.

It is aimed at high-poverty, low-performing schools whose student test scores land them among the bottom 5 percent of schools in their state.

In addition to the partnership with Whitaker, Findley Elementary received $20,000 worth of art supplies and musical instruments this school year.

Incorporating the arts into education cannot alone raise test scores, but the tactic can go a long way toward making schools a more comfortable place for parents and students, said Rachel Goslins, director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

“Findley is finding that parents come to the school to see their kids perform, and then they come back for parent-teacher conferences,” Goslins said. “The culture and climate of a school makes a difference, and the arts are one way we have of opening that door.”

Research has linked musical education to increased math scores. Drawing can help students understand spatial relationships. Acting gives students a chance to improve their own writing and speaking.

At Findley, the arts have made students more eager to learn, according to 9-year-old Marlene Alfaro. “We get to use our imaginations,” she said.

Written by Mary Stegmeir
Mar. 17