BOSTON — As part of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Roxbury’s Orchard Gardens is one of eight pilot schools in the country named as a Turnaround Arts school. For the next two years, it’s receiving extra federal money devoted to the arts.
And, on Thursday, the school had some very famous mentors visit. Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble played to a packed auditorium of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, who clapped along with the music.
The special performance was part of a two-year, public-private arts education initiative run out of the White House. As part of the program, world-renowned cellist Ma and former New York City ballet star Damian Woetzel are the artist mentors to Orchard Gardens students.
“The sun is shining brightly and you raise your right hand just like that,” Woetzel said, as he had the entire audience on its feet for some simple choreography.
Following Woetzel’s dance, Ma, who is from Cambridge, took the stage.
“I’m just so incredibly happy to be here and to see all the dancers do such original, fabulous work,” he said.
Two years ago, Orchard Gardens was among the five worst-performing schools in the state. It was designated a turnaround school, which made it eligible for additional federal and state funds. Under the leadership of a new principal, its students have made significant academic gains. Now it begins a two-year designation as a Turnaround Arts school. The program brings arts into high-poverty, under-performing schools.
“One of the tragedies of public education at the moment is that the kids who need the arts the most are getting it the least,” said Rachel Goslins, executive director for the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“There’s actually plenty of art in public schools, but it’s mostly in the higher-income, higher-performing schools,” Goslins added. “And in a school like this with a high ELL population, a high special needs population, these are the kids that are non-verbal learners. These are the kids that can learn best through alternative methods — audio, visual, kinesthetic. These are the kids that need to feel like they are a success in something before they go on and be a success in other things.”
Ma and Woetzel will visit the school several times over the next two years to work with students.
In an orchestra class Thursday, Ma instructed students how to slow down. Don’t use your bow, he said, to practice the pace by playing an air instrument.
After a few tries, the orchestra sounded better.
In a dance studio on the floor below, Woetzel coached a group of modern dancers.
“Carve the air,” Woetzel instructed.
“What I’m seeing right now is an opportunity that so few people in the world have — to work with Damian Woetzel or Yo-Yo Ma on what they are learning in school, it’s second to none,” said Orchard Gardens’ principal, Andrew Bott, as he watched the master class.
Bott said these visits from premier artists will build on the arts program they run at the school.
“Arts teach kids so much about the process of learning a skill, the process of taking risks, the process of practicing over and over to become an expert at something,” Bott said.
Bott hopes the Turnaround Arts program at Orchard Gardens will show how increasing arts education will help increase student achievement and narrow the achievement gap.