Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Turnaround Arts Talent Show

May 25, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all. Everyone, please rest yourselves. Hello, and welcome to the White House for what is my favorite event of the year! (Applause.) Oh, I am thrilled that all of you could be here for our second White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show! (Applause.) And we've spruced it up here. This year, we've upped it. We got lighting and all kinds of atmosphere going on. (Laughter.)

Let me start by thanking the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Education for their leadership and their love and their passion for this program.

And of course, I want to recognize everyone from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for their outstanding work. Let's just stop there for a moment. Because this isn't in the remarks, so everybody is like, oh, no, what's she going to say? (Laughter.) You all are champions. You have worked just so hard. You've delivered -- (applause) -- you have delivered on every possible wish, hope that I could have had. And I just thank you all for your wonderful work and your friendship.

I want to thank Kathy Fletcher, the National Director for Turnaround Arts, for her great work. (Applause.) I want to thank two champions, George and Margo. You two, man, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. You have led this so gracefully and passionately. I'm indebted to you, but I love you. Thank you both. (Applause.)

To Mary Schmidt Campbell, as well -- Mary Schmidt, thank you. Thank you, Mary. You are amazing. (Applause.) To Damian, Damian Woetzel. Is he performing or doing something? He's usually very involved in everything. There you go, Damian. Thank you, thank you for all your great work. (Applause.) And to Megan Beyer, Megan, thank you. Great job. Great job. You filled in well, doing a great job. Thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to welcome all of the legendary artists and all the performers and all the folks who have made today possible and have helped us have another terrific year, including Keb' Mo', Tim Robbins, Bernie Williams, Lil' Buck. Happy birthday, again, Lil' Buck. (Laughter.) And so many of you, thank you all for joining us here today. Thank you for loving these kids and working so hard. We couldn't do this. You make this even more special than it is.

And most of all, I want to recognize the stars of today's show, our students who are here from all over the country. We have students here from New York, my home state of Illinois, Iowa. (Laughter.) Chicago? (Applause.) We're a little nuts like that. (Laughter.) Minnesota. (Applause.) So you can't be outdone. (Laughter.) Louisiana. (Laughter and applause.) Connecticut. (Applause.) Cali, California. (Applause.) And my adopted home state of Hawaii. (Applause.) My in-law state. (Laughter.) And my current hometown, right here in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)

Now, for many of you, this isn't your first trip to the White House. Over the years, Turnaround Arts students have helped us welcome visitors from around the world, including just two weeks ago when some of the students from the Savoy Elementary School performed for the spouses of leaders from the Nordic countries at our state dinner at the Renwick Gallery. Megan hosted that. And they made the spouses cry, I'll just leave it at that. They were amazing. And today, I understand that you're all going to be bringing down the house with your singing and dancing. So I can't wait to see what you all have pulled together. I've heard you from upstairs. (Laughter.) My staff has said, these kids are going buck wild in here. (Laughter.) That was a quote. Tina, I won't tell you from who. (Laughter.)

But before we get to the show, I want to just take a moment to talk to you about how we got here, and why we will not rest until every single student in America has the kind of opportunities you all have given these students to engage with the arts.

It was about five years ago, and across the country, arts classes were being cut back or eliminated altogether. Over a million students weren't getting any music education, and nearly 4 million students had no access to the visual arts at all. And these were serious losses for our young people, because we all know that kids who get involved in the arts have better grades. They have fewer behavioral problems. They're more likely to graduate, and they're more likely to go to college.

So the PCAH had also just released a report showing that arts education was the key to getting students excited about academics and possibly even turning around an entire school.

Now, my husband was already working to bring new resources to some of our nation's lowest-performing schools –- schools where test scores were low and teacher turnover was high. And where many folks were ready to give up and shut these schools down for good, we saw potential. And the PCAH decided to put our ideas about the arts to the test to see if schools like these could be turned around all across the country. And that's how Turnaround Arts began.

And it started with just eight schools, and they brought in art supplies and instruments. They trained teachers, enlisted some of our biggest corporations and non-profits, and recruited renowned artists to adopt schools. Musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Trombone Shorty, they organized workshops. Artists like Chuck Close, who is here with us today -- Chuck, who is behaving himself. He told me. (Laughter.) Chuck helped to arrange exhibits of students' work. Actors like Sarah Jessica Parker and Kerry Washington taught theater classes and helped stage plays. And the results were beyond our wildest imagination.

Just take the example of Northport Elementary School in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Back in 2013, less than half of their students had proficient scores on state reading, math, and science tests, and morale was very low. But then they became a Turnaround Arts school, and they started including the arts in every part of the curriculum. The music teacher helped students break down rap lyrics in English class -- the precursor to "Hamilton." (Laughter.) They started it in Minnesota. Lin doesn't want to admit it, but it was really the English class. (Laughter.) They hired full-time staff members to teach drama and dance. And businesses like Target and Home Depot donated materials so that over 150 students, staff and community members could paint murals and plant flowers on the school grounds.

And within two years, their test scores improved. They went from almost 200 student suspensions per year to 41, and Northport was actually removed from the state's list of schools that are the furthest behind. As Principal Leona Derden, who is here with us today -- Principal Derden, are you here? There you go. (Applause.) These are her words, she said, "The arts made the difference in the lives of our students." And we're so proud of you and all of the other principals and administrators who are here.

And this school's experience wasn't unusual. The Turnaround Arts program has been rigorously evaluated, and participating schools across the country have reported that class attendance and parental engagement is up. Math scores have soared by an average of more than 20 percent, and reading scores have improved by more than 10 percent. SO that's some good outcomes right there.

Now, of course, a lot of factors go into turning around a school -- factors like having a great principal, having wonderful teachers, having engaged students, committed parents. But this program helped show that the arts could be an essential part of this strategy. And once word of these excellent results got out, school districts across the country started clamoring to get involved. And by next year, Turnaround Arts will be in 68 schools reaching over 30,000 students nationwide. That's terrific. (Applause.) Well done.

So make no mistake about it, this program isn't just turning around schools, it's turning students' lives around as well. Take the example of Lionnell Wilson. He's a 6th grader at the Jettie Tisdale School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just last year, Lionnell was having trouble with attendance, and he was one of the shyest kids, I understand, in his grade. But fortunately, Jettie Tisdale is a Turnaround Arts school with an excellent theater program. And when they held a casting call for a "Willy Wonka" musical last fall, Lionnell worked up the courage and decided to try out. And I understand his voice blew the judges away.

After he was cast as one of the leads, he didn't dream of missing rehearsals, so his attendance problems disappeared. And then, of course, his grades started improving, and he then became a leader among his peers.

You were recording me and recording it back, weren't you? (Laughter.) I was like, that sounds familiar, that voice! (Laughter.) I just said that! But we'll get this for you. We'll make sure you get a copy. (Laughter.)

But here's the good news -- the special news is that we're going to hear from Lionnell today as the featured soloist in his school's big song. (Applause.) So he's here in the flesh, and he's going to sing for us! And I'm so excited.

So when we say that the arts are an essential part of our kids' education, this is really what we're talking about. We mean that no one should ever think that dance and music and theater are a luxury -- I say this every year -- because for so many of our students, they are truly necessities. They're the reason these kids show up. That's why we're putting on this show today. And that's why we're shining a big bright light on all these incredible students and all the administrators and the others who have made this program possible.

But here's the thing: For every student who is represented here today, we know that there are so many others who still don't have access to the arts. So while we're proud of the progress we've made, we know that we are nowhere near finished. We need to keep on advocating for arts education. We need to keep on expanding the Turnaround Arts Program, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office next year -- absolutely. (Applause.) We may have started this program in the Obama administration, but it needs to be part of every administration from here on out. Yes, again. (Applause.)

And that's why my husband included funding for arts education in his budget and why we are implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act that he signed last year, which will help give more of our kids the well-rounded education they need. And that's also why today, I am particularly proud to announce a new Turnaround Arts partnership with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This is good stuff. (Applause.)

As folks in this room may know, the Kennedy Center features world-renowned arts education programming, and they will be putting those amazing resources to use to help expand Turnaround Arts to even more schools and bring the arts to even more students across America. In other words, this might be the last Turnaround Arts Talent Show I'm hosting in the White House, but we are all committed to continuing this work to promote the arts and lift up students, and turn around schools nationwide for years to come.

I am just grateful for all of those who worked so hard to make this partnership possible, that this isn't the end, that this is the beginning of the conversation. And I want everybody out there to understand that these are real results. These are real kids and real schools that can be so much different and so much better if we give these kids what every other kid, our kids, have -- arts and sports and reading and love. They all deserve it, and with it they flourish.

So I am grateful to you all for this work. It has been an amazing seven and a half years being with you all. This is the highlight of much of what I do as First Lady, and seeing the faces on these kids and having them here in the house running around, making noise, eating the food. It is just the best. It is the absolute best. (Laughter.)

So with that I'm going to stop talking so that we can get on with the fun, because it's time for the show! Thank you so much, everyone. God bless. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Turnaround Arts Talent Show Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320859

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