WASHINGTON - When Principal Patrick Pope arrived at Savoy Elementary School in the blighted Anacostia neighborhood in March 2011, his impression was bleak: "It was the saddest school I'd ever been in."
Which is saying something, given Pope's 30-plus years in the capital's public schools. "The kids didn't want to be there," Pope recalled. "The teachers didn't want to be there. The parents didn't want to be there." Although the facility was new, it had a penitentiary atmosphere, with unadorned cinder-block walls and students plodding through rote worksheets.
Today, by many measures, Savoy struggles still. Nearly every one of its 416 students receives free or reduced-price meals; Pope's first question to children, as they file in each morning, is whether they have eaten breakfast. It has been deemed a "turnaround school," in the bottom 5 percent.
But it is not a stretch to call the Savoy of today vibrant, even joyful - the product of Pope's vision of an institution that could be transformed by integrating the arts into an otherwise dreary curriculum, boosted by a federal program that aims to use the arts as an element of school reform.
In an educational age dominated - appropriately so - by the core curriculum and performance metrics, arts education tends to be shoved aside, left to wealthier schools that can afford the time and money to accommodate such luxuries.
Yet the Savoy experience illustrates the falseness of the choice between reinforcing basics for desperately struggling students and exposing them to the arts. Bringing arts into the curriculum, supporters argue, engages otherwise disconnected students; emphasizing arts education, whether memorizing dance moves or practicing an instrument, develops attributes of attentiveness and patience that transfer to academic performance.
Since Pope's arrival and Savoy's selection in 2012 by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as one of eight schools in the federal "Turnaround: Arts" program, the school's dismal performance on standardized tests has improved markedly, albeit still too dismal: In the 2011-12 school year, 16 percent were performing at or above grade level in math, 19 percent in reading. Last year, those numbers had risen to 22 and 27 percent, still woefully below the city average in a city not known for high-performing schools.
Teachers once concerned that being asked to integrate arts into their curriculum would undermine student performance - and thereby jeopardize their own standing - have become believers.
The results so far are hopeful but mixed. Attendance rates at four of seven schools studied increased, but declined at three others. Disciplinary actions decreased at five of eight schools. Compared to other low-performing schools in their area, four of six participants showed higher growth in reading; three showed higher growth in math, but there were significant drops at three others.
In short, the arts can't save failing schools - certainly not on their own. The focus has to be on academic fundamentals. Yet I ended my morning at Savoy more convinced that arts programs can be more than a gracious dollop of artsy noblesse oblige for poor kids; rather, they can serve as a building block toward academic success.