Michelle Obama enlisted some big names to assist her in the White House's first talent show, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Alfre Woodard, Trombone Shorty and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, but it was a surprise guest who upstaged them all.
"I've got some talent," said Barack Obama at the end of the performance Tuesday afternoon. "But I wasn't invited to be part of the show."
The talent show was organized to raise awareness for Turnaround Arts, a program enacted under the guidance of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) to increase performance and achievement at some of the lowest-ranked schools in the country through arts education.
Students at eight schools around the country participated in the show, featuring musical theatre, spoken word and interpretative dance and received words of encouragement from the Obamas.
"The arts are central to who we are as a people and they are central to the success of our kids," President Obama said. "This is not an afterthought. This is not something you do because it's nice to do. It is necessary for these young people to succeed that we promote the arts. I hope that events like this help send a message to school districts and parents and governors and leaders all across this country to support the arts. It's a priority."
The PCAH established the Turnaround Arts program three years ago to bring instruments, art supplies and arts education resources to the lowest-achieving schools in the country and to facilitate artists' adoptions of select schools over a two-year period. Michelle Obama noted the value of arts education in schools, with studies showing that schools with access to arts have better grades, higher rates of college enrollment, increased attendance and marked decreases in disciplinary problems. On a qualitative level, she said, students with access to arts were more confident and engaged with teachers and their peers.
"With so many pressing challenges, bringing the arts to these schools wasn't exactly the top of [some schools'] priority list," said the First Lady. "But the students in these schools are engaged in education like never before. Once we get the kids in their seats, then we can teach them math and reading and science. Arts is the hook. Arts education isn't something we add on after we've achieved other priorities like raising test scores and getting kids into college. It's actually critical for achieving those priorities in the first place." Obama announced that the program would quadruple in size, eventually covering 35 schools across 11 states and allowing 10,000 more students to have access to arts education.
For the Chili Peppers' Smith, who adopted a school in Monterey, California and lobbied Speaker of the House John Boehner Wednesday for increased funding for arts education, being involved in Turnaround Arts is personal.
"I didn't give a shit about science, math or English when I was in school and music was the only reason I wanted to go," Smith told Rolling Stone. "It got me interested in other subjects and I would've never graduated without it. If kids can connect with some sort of art in some way, it will enrich their lives in ways they probably can't fully comprehend at the time."
Earlier this week, Smith attended Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C. with musician and former New York Yankee Bernie Williams to teach a class on music. "These are schools where the kids look down at their feet and have no hope and don't feel like they mean anything," said Smith. "They have no self-worth. They need something. This is not a photo-op and just throwing some money. You really roll your sleeves up and immerse yourself in the school."
"The great reward has been the success of this initiative, even in its infancy," said Parker at the talent show. "Parents and the entire community are now active where they simply had not been [before]. The hallways are brimming with a new renewed pride."
At the talent show, Michelle Obama remarked on the improvement of the pilot schools, but noted that more work needed to be done. "I am thinking about the 6 million children who don't have access to a single arts or music class in their schools," said Obama. "The vast majority of these kids attend the highest needs schools. Schools with crumbling classrooms, less experienced teachers and technology that lags years behind. So too often, the kids who need arts education the most are getting it the least. As you watch these children performing today, think about the kind of trajectory they might be on [without arts]."