Arts turn around troubled New Orleans school

NEW ORLEANS -- There was a talent show at the White House Tuesday, and the first lady was right in the middle of it. The performers go to troubled schools that have added the arts to their core curriculum to try to turn them around.

It's an Obama administration program that has been so successful, it was expanded Tuesday to a total of 35 schools.

With so much rhythm in the room, it's hard to imagine music nearly died at one New Orleans school. But four years ago, everything was failing at the school, now known as the Renew Cultural Arts Academy.

Fewer than 15 percent of students could read at grade level. It was one of the lowest testing schools in Louisiana.

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Angela Russell and Jarred Gray
CBS News

"I heard from friends that there was a lot of stuff going on, like fights, and teachers weren't really teaching," says seventh-grader Angela Russell. Angela didn't want to come to the school, but she says things are different since the school decided to put more emphasis on arts education.

"I like everything about being here," she says. "It's, like, the first school I've ever really enjoyed."

Now students like Angela count the measures in band or stand up in math class to act out a bar graph.

"It's not just to have a music education class, you know, during the school day or after school," says Ron Gubitz, the elementary school principal. "But it's actually to use the music and use visual arts and use theater to teach core content."

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Students from the Renew Cultural Arts Academy perform at the White House talent show.
CBS News

With the new curriculum, the school has seen a 20 point rise in standardized tests over five years -- plenty of room for improvement, but enough to earn recognition from the White House. Renew is one of the Turnaround schools granted funding to hire more arts teachers, tripling the time kids spend learning the arts.

"We've been doing that work to set a template so that any school sees that it's possible to do this," says actress Alfre Woodard, who volunteers at the school. "Enrollment stays steady, or it goes up, behavioral problems go down and the culture of the schools are transformed."

It's transformed sixth-grader Jarred Gray.

"I was bad," he admits. "I would get put out of class a lot."

With his classmates, he just took his first-ever plane ride -- to the White House.

Jarred says when he found out he was going to the White House, "I fainted."

"I got home and I was like, 'Wait, I'm going to Washington,' and I laid in my bed and I was like, 'Oh, goodness,'" he recalls.

Music woke him up -- and brought his school back to life.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.

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