Poised atop a small stepladder, Jamiah Ward carefully stenciled royal blue paw prints onto the walls of the gym at Northport Elementary School last Tuesday afternoon.

The fifth-grader was part of an advance team of students, school staffers and community members prepping the Brooklyn Center school for its new role as a Turnaround Arts school. The federal program aims to use the arts to help schools close the achievement gap and increase student involvement.

Jamiah and her second-grade brother, Jamir, were among nearly 150 volunteers who converged on the school to paint colorful murals and accent walls. They ventured outside, too, landscaping, planting flowers and adding color to otherwise plain wooden benches.

As she stepped back to admire her work, Ward noticed that the playful paw print “really shows more of the bear,” the school’s mascot.

“The gym looks totally different. Seeing how the school looks, it’s amazing,” she said, not seeming to mind the paint streaks on her jeans.

She’s eager to point out the improvements to her friends, including her very own handiwork. “I can’t wait for school to start,” Ward said.

The enthusiasm bred by the arts is one reason why education officials are turning to them to boost regular academics.

Northport is among four schools in Minnesota and 35 nationwide that were chosen to participate in the program this year. Elementary and middle schools with a “priority” ranking with the state Department of Education, or those that are lagging academically were invited to apply to the program.

They had to make a case for “the need and opportunity, strong school leadership and a commitment to arts education,” program materials state. Less than half of Northport’s students scored at the proficient level on state reading, math and science tests in 2013.

Northport, a highly diverse school where 87 percent of its 600-plus students are on free or reduced lunch, had already been seeking out ways to strengthen its art offerings, said Principal Leona Derden. Now, through Turnaround Arts, the school will “weave art education into all areas of the curriculum,” she said.

Partners pitch in

Getting help from outside the school has been important, too.

Volunteers came and went in shifts beginning at 8 a.m. Julie Baumeister, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, spent much of her time on Tuesday directing volunteers at the check-in table. “The community involvement has been overwhelming,” she said, adding that Home Depot, Target and other local partners sponsored the event.

The projects will continue well after school starts next week. A couple of murals will be created later in the year that will rotate. That includes a big map displaying the many places across the globe where students’ families come from, Baumeister said.

The Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley is heading up the Turnaround Arts initiative in the state.

The Perpich Center’s Alina Campana, the program director for Turnaround Arts: Minnesota, attended Northport’s beautification day.

It “sends a message about what’s important at the school,” she said. Right away when students start school, they’ll see that something is different in the building, she said.

Sheri Tamte, the implementation coordinator for the program, was also on hand. She said the challenge for each participating school is to ask itself, “ ‘How can we scream the theme, and look like an arts-rich environment, how can we promote it and walk the walk?’ ” she said.

As the school moves forward with the program, the Perpich Center will provide resources. Throughout the school year, the arts will be boosted in various ways, not just the visual arts, but music, dance, literature and theater will be integrated into the classroom.

Bringing in an artist-in-residence or putting on a musical are just a couple of the possibilities.

Once school starts, the staff, together with the Perpich Center, will come up with a strategic plan for doing just that. Each school will “make it their own, to tailor it to the school and families,” Campana said.

The impetus for Turnaround Arts was an influential report that shed light on how the arts “engage learning and on for life,” Campana said. However, children in poverty often don’t have access to this subject area at their cash-strapped schools, she said.

To address that, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities tested Turnaround Arts in eight pilot schools in 2011. The philosophy behind it was that the arts could be “a key tool for school improvement,” she said.

Those pilot schools saw success, and that opened the door to rolling out the program regionally.

Over the next two years, Northport and the other Turnaround Arts schools will be “doing things to create capacity, to make it sustainable.” The hope is that these schools become models for others, Tamte added.

Michelle Azure, a fifth-grade teacher at Northport, attended a training session this summer in Washington, D.C. It underscored something that she’s learned in many years of teaching: “We don’t all learn the same way. Sometimes we expect everyone to be all one model,” Azure said.

Creative activities give students another outlet “to show us what they know,” she said. The school district has worked to keep the arts intact, but “this brings it to a whole new level,” Azure said.

A school makeover

The beautification event is an excellent first step to “bringing the school and community together to make the building more inviting and to reflect students’ personalities and their capabilities, make it a place where they want to be,” Azure said.

During the beautification day, people took turns filling in a mural near the entryway where buses will soon line up. It features an abstract illustration of paint splatters that come in shades of orange, blue, yellow and green.

Art teacher Claire Mielke, now in her second year of teaching, said, “I knew we needed something here, something fun.” She thought the paint splatters, which almost appear to be dancing, would be “cheerful.”

The other murals throughout the building convey a similar aesthetic. In the nearby media center, the word “read,” is spelled out in a bunch of different languages on one wall, forming a kind of collage. The gym walls are adorned with multicolored blocks, and big bear paws, while the multipurpose room/cafeteria shows “Bears” in big cursive letters that radiate out from an illustration of paint tubes. Although the same color palette can be found throughout each mural, Mielke mixed her own pink for that one. Volunteers’ handprints, including principal Derden’s, transform a separate brick wall.

As Mielke brainstormed design ideas before the event, “I wanted to bring out the light in the school and reflect the school culture, which is very lively.”

Students “deserve a friendly and exciting place,” she added.

Mielke also tried to make the images easy to execute. “I drew it out and gave a little advice, not instructions.” Everyone “did a better job than I could have imagined,” Mielke said.

Yuridia Otero, a fifth-grader who is fond of art, painted two columns in the media center a vibrant green shade.

“It makes me feel important,” she said.

Plus, “The school looks beautiful,” she added.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.