Addressing core challenges through the arts – that is what Turnaround Arts is all about. Each year, our local programs identify common challenges, plan for how to address them as a Turnaround Arts cluster, and then dig deeply into planning that meets their schools’ particular needs. As part of this process, schools are asked to peel back the onion and look beyond the evidence of the problem to explore the nature of the problem itself. If reading comprehension is weak, for instance, why is that? And how can the arts help to build the inferential and synthesizing abilities needed to deeply understand text? If students are misbehaving and disengaged, why isn’t the curriculum engaging them? And how can the arts help to bring them eagerly into learning?
More and more, our schools are increasingly arriving at a similar conclusion through this process: stress, anger, and hopelessness are a key contributor to low student engagement and motivation. This conclusion is backed by developing neuroscience that places emotion at the gateway to learning and finds that a sense of safety and emotional support is required to quiet the panic centers of the brain and allow the intellectual parts of the brain to take center stage. As districts head this research and turn to programs that build students’ social emotional capacity, our schools are actively employing the arts to build these essential skills in students.The arts hold unique potential to bring down stress and give a means of expression and relief. The personal exposure that happens in creative activities contributes to healthy, attached relationships between staff and students, increased student engagement, and ultimately improved skills and abilities. All of these are essential to students finding their way to a positive life path.
No school better exemplifies this core challenge or focused approach to addressing it than Red Lake Middle School, a reservation school on The Red Lake Nation in rural Minnesota. The staggeringly high suicide rates that plague reservation youth around the country – as high as 22 percent for females, and 12 percent for males – are no exception in Red Lake. Two years ago, their Arts Leadership Team turned immediately to addressing this core challenge through the arts by focusing on arts programming that increased student expression, interaction, interests, and investment.
The school saw immediate results. In their first year as a Turnaround Arts school, tardies at Red Lake Middle School decreased by 57%, bullying and harassment decreased by 67%, and behavior referrals decreased by 40%. By their second year as a Turnaround Arts school, attendance rose from 75.8% to 87%. With increased engagement, safety and calm, achievement has risen over the past two years, with measures for success in reading rising from 23.2% to 32.2%, and proficiency in math moving from 5.9% to 7.2%. The arts of course have not been the only tool at work, but as evident in the video below, staff, students and school leaders see the arts as central to the change that they see happening.
Perhaps most importantly, last year Red Lake Middle School saw no student suicides – the first in many years.