“I have a dream!” Orchard Gardens’ first graders shouted in unison before hundreds who had gathered for a school assembly earlier this week. Line by line, the students recited the entire ending of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech. The performance created a palpable energy in the room, and when the students finished, the audience—which included students, parents, teachers, state and local officials and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—rose to its feet for a standing ovation.
Orchard Gardens is a K-8 school in Roxbury, Mass., which has undergone a dramatic transformation. When it opened in 2003, the school was designated as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. In 2009, the school became part of the Boston Public Schools’ Arts Expansion Initiative, and received a federal School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2012, Orchard Gardens became a Turnaround Arts Initiative school, through the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.
Since 2009, students’ math proficiency scores have improved from six percent to 34 percent. English scores improved from 13 percent to 43 percent proficiency, from 2009 to 2013. Orchard Gardens provides student-specific interventions, coordinated by two full-time school site coordinators. Through community partnerships, students receive health and social services supports.
During Secretary Duncan’s visit he stopped by band class for an impromptu mini concert. One of the students told Duncan that playing the French horn makes him want to come to school each day. Following the assembly, Duncan toured several classrooms and participated in a roundtable discussion with educators and members of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities to discuss the importance of arts education.
Damian Woetzel, former Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, and a Turnaround Artist for the Turnaround Arts Initiative, spoke about the importance of arts education during the day’s assembly. “It’s not how we can fit the arts in,” he said, “[but] how the arts can be part of a whole education.”
Secretary Duncan told the students and faculty that the eyes of the country are on them and they’re showing the country what’s possible.
Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education