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Watts elementary school draws on the arts to transform itself

The fourth graders carefully analyzed the curves of their faces and features, scanning quickly back and forth between hand-held mirrors and sheets of paper, sketching self-portraits. 

At the front of the class, teacher Diana Chea drew her own face on a projector to help guide the students. 

"What’s next?" she asked. 

"The hair! The hair!" students chimed in across the classroom. 

As part of a school-wide project, students at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School are learning about different famous artists and drawing themselves in that style. Fourth graders studied Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. 

"She inspired me to draw," said 9-year-old Destiny Diaz, who said she wasn't really into drawing before the project. 

"When Ms. Chea introduced me to Frida Kahlo, [now] at home I basically draw a lot." 

This year, school leaders are banking on students making that kind of connection and getting inspired through the arts. 

Destiny Diaz
Priska Neely/KPCC
Destiny Diaz

Joyner is one of sixteen schools in California that's part of Turnaround Arts: California, the local branch of a White House program that aims to use arts instruction to push all learning forward – increasing student achievement, attendance and engagement. Joyner is in its first year of the program, and KPCC will be spending the year following the school as it places its bet on the arts as an instrument of change. 

"This is gonna take us up into a level that we never even imagined possible," said principal Akida Kissane Long. 

The school has a long way to go. Joyner is in Watts, right next to the Jordan Downs housing projects, on a street with a history of gang violence. Kids have become used to nearby shootings, lockdowns and police helicopters hovering above. 

It's also one of the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Last year, only 16 percent of students met math standards, and 15 percent in language arts. And the school's surroundings also present a lot of challenges. 

To turn those bleak statistics around, the school is hinging its improvement plan on a turbo-shot of the arts.

For three years, the school will get district support to add new arts classes, be showered with arts supplies, linked with community arts programs for after-school activities and even get visits from celebrity artists. (Joyner's mentor will be actress Cameron Diaz).

More than 60 schools, all in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in their state, participate across the country. A study of the national program found that – on average – test scores in those schools improved 22 percent in math and 12 percent in reading between 2011-2014. 

Ten schools in California are entering their third year in the program and have shown similar improvements. 

Turnaround Arts: California executive director Malissa Shriver said that, given the track record of other schools in the program, she has hope for Joyner.

"So many of our other schools have come out of school improvement. I think the ultimate goal would be to put ourselves out of business," Shriver said. "The districts should look at the lowest performing schools and shower them with opportunity, just as they do with the wealthy, high-performing schools."


In addition to bringing all the outside resources, Long has an immediate priority inside the school: making sure all the teachers buy in. 

"That's when the real school transformation occurs," she said. "I facilitate and make the space for the change to happen, but the teachers have to own it. And they do."

Classroom teachers are also getting training on how to weave the arts into regular math, language arts or social studies lessons. 

Karsina Gaither
Priska Neely/KPCC
Karsina Gaither

"Hopefully they'll be able to not only begin to gain a love of art, but also begin to love learning period," said fourth grader Karsina Gaither. 

With some of the arts projects she gave students early on, she said they struggled to creative without explicit instruction.

"They were very guarded," Gaither said. "It was very uncomfortable for them. So I'm hoping to see that by the end of the year they can really think outside the box and feel comfortable with their own creativity."

Self-portraits are can be difficult at any age, and for elementary students – especially those new to art classes – it's a challenging assignment. While the consensus seems to be that lips and eyes are reasonably easy, every student struggled with proportions and the nose. Grumbles of, "I can't!" or, "It's too hard" sprang up around the classroom. 

"Remember, we don't use 'I don't know,' " Gaither told the class. "We don’t use ‘it’s too hard’ because if you tell your brain that, then your brain is not going to want to work. So you try."

With the self-portrait project, teachers hope to help students develop their identities as artists and individuals. And it was also a way to share the new vision for the school with parents and the community. 

Fourth grader Samir Davis checks out her features in the mirror as she sketches. Like all the students, the nose is the hardest part.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Fourth grader Samir Davis checks out her features in the mirror as she sketches. Like all the students, the nose is the hardest part.


One afternoon in October, the whole school was transformed into an art gallery, with the self-portraits from each grade on display. 

"It’s just our way of introducing the notion that arts are going to be leading the charge," said Long. 

Students flooded the hallways, dragging parents to look at their work.

"It was hard to get the nose right," Candra Thompson said to her mother, Chandra Fisher, as they looked her piece.

"I think you did a good job," Thompson said. 

The portraits lined the hallways – posted on the walls and on display boards throughout the school for all to see. Below each piece was the name of the student and an artist statement about what they learned during the process. For Candra, the gallery experience was fun, but also a bit overwhelming.

"It’s a little bit scary," said Candra.

"Why?" Fisher asked.  

"It’s embarrassing," she said.

"Why?" Fisher exclaimed. "Everyone drew something!"

"I do not know how to draw," Candra said with heartbreaking sincerity. "I have been working on it, but I’m not a good drawer."

Candra’s drawing is actually quite good. And while she’s working on her artistic confidence, her mom is gaining hope. Candra has been attending the school since she was in kindergarten – a fact that her mom used to view as unfortunate. 

"But maybe, fortunately, now," Fisher said. "I’ve seen a lot more people, a lot more parents here. A lot more people on campus."

She said the school was in need of a change, but more than anything – just a chance.

"We all want that chance and we all get to take it together," Fished said. "We don’t, honestly, get a lot of chances. We've got a chance now."