With Alfre Woodard and Trombone Shorty on the Homer A. Plessy Community School campus Tuesday, you can forgive the students and teachers for being a little star-struck.
The Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning musician were at the 7th Ward school to celebrate the launch of the Turnaround Arts Program, which aims to turn around low-performing schools, narrow the achievement gap, and increase student engagement through the arts.
Plessy is one of just 25 schools in the country chosen to participate in the program, launched by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“I think having the arts in your life helps us to create a different discipline,” said Troy Andrews, aka Shorty, during a media session following his and Woodard’s appearance at a full-school assembly. “And sometimes we can transfer that type of information and energy to schoolwork, or whatever it may be.”
And as students get older, Andrews added, the arts can be the thing that keeps them on the right track.
“During those teen ages, that’s when they’re finding things to get into that might not be good for their lives, but having them be excited about marching band season, Mardi Gras, football season, I think that gives them another excitement point to stay in school and do something right.”
“What I want to show the kids is that school can be fun, and that there’s a reason to come to school, because you’ve got art, music, song, dance,” said Plessy’s Head of School, Joan Reilly. “We’re trying to have a school where kids achieve the same high expectations that other students do without always pulling out that book with chapter one, lesson one, chapter two, lesson two. They can learn science, art, music, math, social studies, all through one project-based lesson.”
Research shows that students have higher test scores, a higher attendance rate, and fewer discipline problems when arts are integrated into the curriculum, said Jacques Rodrigue, executive director of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, which has partnered with the Turnaround Arts Program at Plessy and has been working for six months training teachers at the school to use the arts more in their classrooms.
As for Woodard, she urged the kids to be adventurous in their studies. “From the time you’re 5 years old, all the way through high school, try out a lot of things, and whatever you enjoy, whatever gives you joy and makes you feel peaceful – do that.”
She added that a lot of adults do what they think will earn them a certain amount of money, “but no matter how much money they earn, there’s still hat restlessness. People think, ‘Oh, I’ll be happy if I’m pulling down six figures.’ That’s not true if you’re not doing what you want, or what makes you feel good, or what you feel a spiritual connection to.”
When you’re doing those things, Woodard said, “you could be eating beans and you’re still going feel joyful and good.”