Students and teachers at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Compton are busy preparing for a winter concert that elsewhere might pass with scant notice.
For King Elementary, the concert is both their first full performance at a school where nearly all students come from low-income families and a sign that a program designed to turn schools around through music and the arts may be taking hold.
This year marked the first time for arts classes at King Elementary, a development made possible with funding help from Turnaround Arts — a national initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Turnaround Arts is supporting 10 of California's struggling schools over three years with the goal of improving their academic performance by way of the arts.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a few dozen 6th-graders at King Elementary sat perched in rows of chairs listening to their teacher's instructions. In their hands were shiny violins.
"Start with the down bow," said music teacher Jennifer Carreras as she stood behind a music stand at the front of the room. A broken clock was mounted on the wall behind her, underneath the room's brash fluorescent lights.
"Make sure you control that bow. I don't want any of that bouncing in there, OK?" Carreras said. "Let's try it one last time and then we'll have to move on to vocal music."
Students are not only receiving music instruction in a school that previously didn't have it. They are learning about Michelangelo and other artists, and teachers are working on blending arts into other subjects.
King Elementary Principal Stephanie Richardson says she’s already seen progress from the arts initiative. For one thing, the school recorded a 2 percent uptick in attendance from last year — a small but still significant improvement, she said.
"With art happening, kids don't want to be absent from school," she said. "It makes the attendance better, which also improves their academics because they're here for all of the learning."
Eleven-year-old Kai’re Daugherty admitted he hasn’t always had the best attendance record, but he said that’s changed.
"I came to school 'cause I started to like it, 'cause the arts came to school," he said.
But involving parents in the high-poverty area remains a challenge, Richardson said. If just a third of the parents attend the winter concert, it will be their biggest turnout ever.
In the final weeks of preparation before the school's performance, the students' excitement is palpable.
"I can't wait until we sing for everybody, all your mommy, your dad sits in the crowd," said 1st-grader Kymari Yassin.
Building an arts program where there was none hasn't been easy. The school owns just 38 violins for 12o students and, for many students, the music classes are their first exposure to the arts.
Skills that the students were supposed to learn sequentially starting in the 1st grade have gone unmastered. Carreras said she had to teach rhythm, melody and harmony all in just a few months.
"But they're really, really engaged, and you know, it's not too late," she said.
Richardson said there are many ways to fix educational problems; every year some other idea is floated. "To me, arts is a new way to address the issues in a more creative way," she said.
The King Elementary students will perform their concert Dec. 17 in the school's cafeteria. And they're already looking ahead to the spring when they'll put on their first-ever musical theater production — "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."