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'Nowhere to go but up': A Watts elementary school transforms

Walking down the hallways of Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School on a Thursday afternoon is like spinning a radio dial through the sweet tunes of arts programming. 

Heavy bass wafts out of a hip hop dance class, the shrill squeaks of unseasoned trumpet players flow out of another classroom, along with ukulele strums, drum rhythms, and the shouts of young actors calling out for line cues on the auditorium stage.

This soundscape reflects the school's new mission that extends beyond the school day.

"Everything that we do now at Joyner we want to connect back to the arts," said principal Akida Kissane Long. "It's not something that is separate and apart from the rest of the curriculum."

Struggling schools like Joyner, one of the lowest-performing in the Los Angeles Unified School District, are required to provide academic intervention programs — tutoring after school. This year the school became part of Turnaround Arts: California, the local branch of a national effort to use arts instruction to student achievement and engagement.

So principal Long tried a different approach for the after-school activities. 

"We broke the rules a little bit," she said. "We're good at that." 

The staff decided to blend arts programming with each of the after-school offerings, securing funding to bring in teaching artists and keep staff there longer.

So an hour of hip hop dance was followed by an hour of research and writing. Kids in the ukulele club studied the links between music and math.

"So that they were motivated and engaged in the arts and then they could see a purpose for the reading and research and the writing and math," said Long. "And then that would be a more substantive connection for them to stay the course."

It made a difference. Attendance in after school programs was higher and more consistent. Almost a third of the school, 165 students, participated in eleven clubs — all in addition to the weekly dance and visual art classes classes students rotated through during the year and the arts techniques classroom teachers blended into lessons. 

The most popular activity was the musical.

"It’s a lot of work," said Cathryn Deering, the school arts specialist, who is leading rehearsals with a few other teachers. "The kids are really excited and it’s just been really amazing to just see a lot of our kids really blossom."  

Joyner took on "Shrek The Musical," a fairytale about a big, green ogre who saves a princess named Fiona. Teachers picked this show because the school has a special relationship with one of the stars of the 2001 movie, Cameron Diaz, the school’s celebrity mentor. Diaz visited the school on the day of auditions, read through a scene with a student and talked to an auditorium full of students about the role arts classes played in her life growing up in Long Beach, Calif.

Actress Cameron Diaz, the school's celebrity mentor through Turnaround Arts: California, reads a scene from Shrek with fifth grader Kirk Clarke in February.
Jacob Campbell/ Turnaround Arts: California
Actress Cameron Diaz, the school's celebrity mentor through Turnaround Arts: California, reads a scene from Shrek with fifth grader Kirk Clarke in February.

"My kids come home excited to tell me about the adventures that they’re experiencing at school," said Katia Adams. Her daughter, fourth grader Kayla Drinkard, played the title role of Shrek.

"First I wanted to be Fiona," Drinkard recalled, "but Ms. Deering told me that I am talented and Shrek is a bigger part."

Her mom said she studied her lines "day and night." And that's transferred into studying more for class. Kayla is watching less television and doing a lot more reading, her mother said. Last year, she had a hard time getting along with other kids, but understands teamwork now.

"I see from two years ago 'til now, my baby’s getting a way better education," said Adams.

Teachers and parents at Joyner have collected countless anecdotes about changes like this over the course of the school year. The student who was always in the principal’s office is now one of the stars of the musical. The school psychologist says she’s putting out fewer fires. Parents spent more money than ever before — about $1,000 per day — at the book fair. But as principal Long points out, even with all this, grades and test scores still matter.

"The bottom line is that the district and state, and even the Turnaround Arts program, they wanna see that there's an academic payoff at the end of the story. And we have some good news."

Scores are still very low – Turnaround Arts schools must be in the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state during the application period. Preliminary results show that this year, 26 percent of third graders were meeting or exceeding math standards, up from 22 percent last year. In English Language Arts, they moved from 8 percent to 16 percent. Fifth grade proficiency went from 10 to 19 percent in math, and 19 to 24 percent in ELA.

Arts specialist Cathryn Deering, principal Akida Kissane Long and teacher Charlotte Borgen at the school's portrait night.
Elaine Lee/ Turnaround Arts: California
Arts specialist Cathryn Deering, principal Akida Kissane Long and teacher Charlotte Borgen at the school's portrait night.

Now, the school is in for some big changes. Joyner will become an LAUSD visual and performing arts magnet school starting in 2018. That's also the school’s third and final year as part of Turnaround Arts. 

"We thought, what better way to institutionalize the initiative?" said Long.

And Long, the principal who has been such a key force at the school for the past five years, is retiring at the end of this school year.

"When I told the staff, they started crying," Long exclaimed. "I couldn’t believe it."

Long has been working in L.A. Unified for 35 years and says she's ready for a new challenge. She wants to get back to teaching — specifically training principals, which she'll start doing this summer at a retreat for leaders of Turnaround Arts schools.

Long believes her staff has what it takes to keep up the momentum.

"I would say stay the course. I think that Joyner has nowhere to go but up."