By Mark Wolf
Yo-Yo Ma has played far more acoustically friendly venues than a convention center meeting room, but rarely to an audience more central to his passion for arts education in schools.
The Grammy Award-winning and world-renowned cellist treated an overflow crowd to a performance of the Prelude to Bach's Third Cello Suite during the Arts in Education and Workforce session at NCSL's Legislative Summit.
"You are the stakeholders of what we care about most: the arts and culture, the science and imagination of narrative, of being able to do abstract thinking, critical thinking, intuitive thinking and work toward the innovative society we need to be the great country we want to be," he said.
Ma is among the artists from a wide range of disciplines who lend their time and talents to the Turnaround: Arts program—under the auspices of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities—that incorporates arts education as a way to lift the performance of struggling schools across the nation.
Turnaround: Arts is expanding to work with elementary and middle schools in 35 schools in 25 districts in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Each school ranks in the lowest 5 percent in its state. The program includes a summer institute for school leadership teams, in-school professional development, partnerships with local community arts groups and appearances by professional artists including Marc Anthony, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Russell Simmons, Forest Whitaker and Alfre Woodard.
Ron Gubitz, a school leader at the ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy in downtown New Orleans, credited Turnaround: Arts' role in rejuvenating what he said was the lowest-performing school in Louisiana ("It is a 102-year-old building that had more rats than students"). He said it was difficult to convince some both above and below him that it was a good idea to devote 65 minutes of each school day to music, arts and drama.
"My reply was, 'How can we afford not to?'," said Gubitz, adding that quality arts-integrated learning supplementing strong general education had boosted the school's scores and culture.
After Ma finished his performance to a standing ovation, Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, asked the audience what emotions they felt while Ma was playing. The feedback: joy, inspiration, hope, serenity, inner focus, compassion and excitement.
"Those," she said, "are all words to describe things we want in today's schools."
In a related development
NCSL partner Americans for the Arts announced at the Legislative Summit that 10 state teams would join a three-year pilot program to strengthen arts education by advancing state policy. The 10 states entering the pilot program are Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wyoming , Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Oregon.
Americans for the Arts will support each state team with customized coaching and technical assistance throughout the three year pilot, via web-based tools and site visits. Additionally, teams will receive a direct grant of $10,000 each year of the three year pilot program to support identified goals. The work will build upon the policies outlined in the recent NCSL Legisbrief on arts education.
Mark Wolf is an editor at NCSL.