A big thing is happening at Vincent Academy, and it’s called Turnaround Arts: California. Founded by Frank Gehry and Malissa Shriver, the non-profit works with a limited number of high-need schools to engage and excite students about the arts. This is the first year of a partnership that has been transformative, bringing in lots of resources as well as connecting the school with local and world-renowned artists to inspire students and help them develop and create their own art.
The program has helped Vincent Academy build a safe, positive learning environment and engage students in learning.
“We’ve been looking at Turnaround Arts as a way to really get them interested and plugged into school,” Rasmussen says. “It helps gets kids ready to learn and focused. When they know they’re going to have a fun art activity after they accomplish a task, they’re much more motivated to engage in learning.”
The partnership has led to some pretty cool experiences for students. Recently, actor and rapper Daveed Diggs spent the day on campus and even freestyled. Merrill Garbus of the Oakland band Tune-Yards also visited earlier this year and performed for the students and met with the cast of the school musical.
Earlier in the year, the artist JR from the Inside Out Project, a participatory art project which involves large‐format portrait “pastings,” also visited. JR brought his mobile photography booth studio to campus, and students took photos while holding signs that shared positive messages like “we are caring” and “we are respectful.” The photos were then printed into large black-and-white posters and plastered around the school community. “We used the experience as a way to affirm our students,” Rasmussen said.
Turnaround Arts also provides artists-in-residency for the school throughout the year. The artists who visited the campus include:
- Staff from SPARC Poetry, who were on campus for six-weeks working with fourth and fifth grade students on spoken word and how to write poems, which were then presented at the school’s Black History night.
- Leap Arts in Education taught second and third graders the history or hip-hop who then choreographed and performed a dance performance.
- San Francisco Opera singers, who helped first grade students write their first aria.
- Liz Harvey, a sculpture and performance artist, who worked with kindergarten and 1st students on a visual art installation, creating sculptures out of found materials.
- Cal Shakes artists came to work with students to teach them acting skills to prepare for the school musical.
Along with having a credentialed art teacher on staff, one of the pillars of Turnaround Arts is that teachers all use the same visual arts strategy called Visual Thinking Strategies.
With VTS, a teacher presents a piece of work to students and asks questions about what is happening in the picture. Students respond with what they see, and teachers encourage them to say more of what they find, facilitating a discussion. Next year the push will be to see how VTS can be used in courses outside of art, like science and math.
Rasmussen says she’s impressed with how much progress students made over the course of the year with VTS. In the beginning of the year, for example, a student was making simple observations such as “a tree” or “a house.” By the end of the year, the student could make more detailed observations: why he sees a tree, why he thinks it’s a church rather than a house or a different kind of building. “You could see that their thinking was so much deeper,” she says.
Teachers are supported by an art coach who leads all professional development strategies and also conducts classroom observations and provides feedback. Teachers also observe one another and provide feedback. Teachers are encouraged to explore how they can use the arts in their different subject areas. “The focus on the arts has really energized teachers at Vincent,” Rasmussen says.
The school has also encouraged families to get involved in the arts. The murals that JR helped create were one way to draw families in to the school. “Kids were like, ‘mom and dad, come into the school’ as opposed to just ‘drop me off outside,’” Rasmussen says. “It’s another way we can get people more curious about what’s going on in our school and more involved in our community.”