For a little more than a year now, Anacostia’s Savoy Elementary School has had an unusually high-profile adjunct professor of sorts: actress Kerry Washington. The Scandal and Django Unchained star adopted the school last year as part of the President’s Turnaround Arts Initiative, which sends artists such as Forest Whitaker, Yo-Yo Ma, and Chuck Close to low-performing schools to increase student engagement with the arts. Washington has visited the school for master classes and meetings, Skyped with students, and sent messages to kids to help motivate their progress. “She’s been a committed presence since day one,” says principal Patrick Pope, who was appointed to the school in 2011.
Friday morning, Washington visited Savoy Elementary once again, this time with First Lady Michelle Obama in tow. Mrs. Obama visited classrooms and learned to “freeze dance” with children before addressing the entire school at a performance in the main hall. When it comes to learning, the First Lady told the students, the most important thing is to not be afraid of failure. “It’s not about what you know, it’s about the effort you’re willing to put in,” she said. “You keep trying, and sometimes you’ll make mistakes, and sometimes you’ll fail at something, but the important thing is you get back up when you fail. The only way to learn is to get it wrong so you can learn the answers.”
Students performed a ’50s-inspired dance piece and a song, “Yes, You Can,” by Donnie McClurkin, before Washington joined them to dance the lindy hop. “Did you hear what the First Lady said about if I make a mistake it’s okay, because I’m learning and growing?” she said, shortly before removing her heels and doing a cartwheel onstage with another dancer. Mrs. Obama praised her work at the school and her commitment to acting. “Kerry got a lot of rejections; she spent a lot of time developing her craft, she spent a lot of time practicing, and working, and trying out for things and having people tell her, ‘No, thank you,’” Mrs. Obama said. “But when you put thousands of hours into anything you do, you get better, and that’s what you guys are learning here at Savoy.”
DC Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson was also at Savoy to watch the performance, and she was eager to testify how a focus on arts education has helped the school in a number of ways. “There are lots of studies that show arts education has a tremendous impact on academics, but people’s talents are just as important as test scores,” she said. “Here at Savoy, this is an incredibly impoverished neighborhood, and the school had really been challenged in terms of culture, behavior, attendance, and suspensions. We’ve seen a complete change in culture, with kids who want to be here all hours of the day and teachers who don’t mind being here early or late. The school is just a very different place.”
Henderson intends to provide weekly instruction in the arts to students across elementary schools in the District, as well as instruction in foreign languages and physical education, using the progress students at Savoy have made to further achievement in schools across the city. “Here at Savoy, we’re engaged in a very interesting experiment to see if the arts can turn around low-performing schools,” she said. “We brought one of our most seasoned leaders here—Mr. Pope—and he has really led a renaissance at this school. And we’re even more excited by the partnership that the President’s commission has brought to Savoy. We expect to see huge payoffs.”