Senegalese drummer Keba Diabate sits, his ankles crossed around the jinbe, and calls his class of fourth-graders to order.
He begins tapping the goat skin. His students respond in kind. And soon, they are engrossed in a complex, rhythmic conversation.
The arts — drumming and dance, tribal mask-making and more — have always been part of the curriculum at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, an African-American immersion school on Milwaukee’s north side.
Now, they’ll get a boost through a national initiative aimed at helping struggling schools leverage arts education to bolster overall academic achievement.
First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to announce Wednesday that MLK and three other Milwaukee Public Schools have been selected to take part in the White House’s 2016-’17 Turnaround Arts program.
Principal Marcus Arrington and his counterparts at the other three schools — Lancaster, Sherman Multicultural Arts and Roosevelt Creative Arts middle schools — are expected to be on hand in Washington for the announcement.
The four are the only Wisconsin schools, out of 68 nationally, named to take part next year.
“It is without question that the arts help improve student achievement,” said MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, who will take part in an arts celebration and viewing of the White House announcement at 1 p.m. Wednesday at MPS’ central offices, 5225 W. Vliet St.
Driver, who was raised in a musically talented home, said she can speak personally to the transformative power of arts in her own family and life.
“So many of our staff members have shared that same story,” she said. “And we want that for all of our young people.”
The Turnaround Arts program, developed by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, launched in 2012 with such high-profile partners as the cellist Yo Yo Ma and the painter Chuck Close.
It’s currently operating in 49 schools in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
The program brings together schools, nonprofits and artist mentors to enhance arts instruction at poorly performing schools and help staff integrate the principles and instruction into the rest of their curriculum.
Research suggests that exposure to the arts — music, theater, dance, the visual arts — can have widespread positive effects for students, among them increasing creative thinking and problem-solving skills, boosting confidence, improving attendance and lowering suspensions.
A 2015 study of the Turnaround Arts program found that, on average, eight schools studied saw a 22.55% improvement in math proficiency between 2011 and 2014 and a 12.6% improvement in reading proficiency.
The MPS Turnaround Arts efforts will focus on three key areas, according to the district: additional professional development for teachers and administrators; the integration of visual arts, music, dance, theater and media arts into all classrooms; and working with partners to provide both in-school and after-school enrichment programs for students.
Several Milwaukee arts organizations have signed on, including Danceworks, First Stage Children’s Theater and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts/Arts ECO, according to the district. Funders so far include the Herzfeld Foundation and the Zilber Family Foundation.
In addition, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Cardinal Stritch University are working with MPS on recruitment, training and ongoing support of MPS arts educators.
The program is part of a broader effort by Milwaukee Public Schools to bolster its art programming after years of cuts, according to the district. Since the 2012-’13 school year, it said, it has added 126 art and music teachers. It is a part of the Cre8MKE initiative aimed at ensuring that all children have equitable access to high quality arts program. And it spends about $1.5 million annually on after-school and summer arts programs, it said.
Arrington has been working to reinvigorate the arts programming at MLK since he took over as principal last year, bringing in such partners as Arts@Large and theAfrican-American Children’s Theater company.
“I think this will be great for our school,” he said. “I see this as something that could really galvanize us, something to rally around.”
A musician himself, he sees arts education as central to the mission of all schools, but particularly at a school like MLK, which steeps children in African-American history and culture.
“I don’t know where humanity would be if we didn’t have art as a way to tell our stories, to communicate our state of being,” Arrington said.
“You can’t have an authentic African-American immersion program if you don’t have that arts piece.”
Get involved with local arts news. Sign up for our FREE e-newsletter and you'll always have local performing arts information at your fingertips.