On a given day at Jenkins White Elementary Charter School, pupils might be reading poetry in music class or dancing during math.
Here, singing is not confined to the music room. For some activities they are asked to write a song instead of an essay.
In a school where 94 percent of students live in housing projects and test scores have fallen historically at the bottom of the district, school leaders are looking for innovation, not excuses.
Jenkins White launched a fine arts infusion in its curriculum this year as a strategy to boost achievement and enhance social learning. The hope is that it can help students meet academic goals outlined in the school’s charter by 2016.
“We have to grab at ways to improve the school and bring the school to life,” said Principal Earl Kelton, who took over in December. “The arts open them up. So many of our children don’t have the experiences they need, so we use the arts to be able to stand in front of people … to say good morning, to shake hands.”
The Richmond County Board of Education converted Jenkins White into a charter school in 2007 to allow for more flexibility in the curriculum. Although it did not meet all the initial academic goals, the state renewed the charter in 2011 with the openness to look at growth over time.
Assistant Principal Cheryl Fry, who has been at the school five years, said she believes the fine arts focus can help stimulate progress the school needs.
“Our children are very creative and they love to learn, but they’re non-traditional,” Fry said. “They’re not going to be successful on all the tests, but they’re successful using their creativity. So we have to take advantage of that.”
On a student furlough day Friday, Jenkins White staff had training where they learned about dance from an Atlanta Ballet ballerina, theater integration from an actress and how to infuse arts into daily lessons while still following Georgia Performance Standards.
According to Ayanna Hudson, the director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts, fine arts education is proven to help develop critical thinking skills and problem-solving that bleed into academic subjects. A 2012 NEA study showed at-risk youth particularly benefit from this strategy.
Teens and young adults of low socioeconomic status who had in-depth arts involvement were more likely to plan for college, complete college and participate in extracurricular activities, according to the study.
“When students are exposed to the arts, the overall school culture and school climate improves,” Hudson said. “The arts really create such robust learning environments that these schools and classrooms become places where kids want to be.”
The fine arts piece will go along with other freedoms the school has in place because of its charter. Students are released early every Wednesday to allow for professional learning for teachers. The class time is made up on the other four days by beginning 30 minutes early.
The charter also enables Jenkins White to offer full-time Spanish, art, music and physical education classes – the only elementary school in the district to do so.
Students receive daily enrichment in reading and math to help bring up scores in critical subjects.
In 2013, 61 percent of third-graders and 89 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded standards in reading. In the same year, 27 percent of third-graders passed math and 28 percent passed science. Fifth-graders fared better, with 76 percent passing math and 66 percent meeting standards in science.
Those results fall far below rather unrealistic goals set out in Jenkins White’s initial charter, which called for passing rates in the 90 percentiles in math and 80 percentiles in science. According to charter objectives, the school must now make a 2 percent growth in the amount of students exceeding standards in all subjects until 2016.
Kelton said the demographics of the school pose unique challenges in meeting that goal other schools might not face, but he hopes outreach is one solution.
Less than half of Jenkins White parents have received a high school diploma, and most children have not mastered basic shapes and colors when they hit kindergarten. But because families in housing projects are required to complete monthly community service, Kelton said he has suggested parents spend their time volunteering at the school.
He also brought school officials into the neighborhoods for kindergarten registration in March instead of expecting parents to come to the campus. When there is a discipline problem or a parent won’t answer the phone, Kelton said he’ll show up at their doorstep.
As part of the social development piece, students walk politely in the halls but are encouraged to talk and communicate. They greet visitors with smiles and run to hug Kelton and teachers in the hallways.
“My focus has to be working with the parents, because that’s the lost connection that’s so important,” he said.
Fry is also searching for grant opportunities to give the students cultural exposures they might not have otherwise, especially in light of the district’s drastic budget cuts. She is looking for outside sources to possibly fund field trips for students who might have never been to a park or “outside of Augusta or past Gordon Highway.”
With the arts infusion, she hopes to take students to the Atlanta Ballet or a museum.
Art teacher Jennifer McDaniel, whose classroom is decorated with vocabulary words and Van Gogh sketches, said the art integration is one way to expand students’ cultural awareness, even if they can’t make it out of the neighborhood.
“Life doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” McDaniel said. “The earlier they are exposed, the more they are going to be able to deal with life. Fine arts is a commentary on society. Talk about any culture and you look at their art and music. The more we are exposed the more we understand about the world.”