FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE: Moments to create through arts may boost critical areas like math, reading skills

By the end of the dance rehearsal, Lisa Perrymond was in tears. So was her boss.

Harper-Archer Elementary School Principal Dione Simon Taylor had just watched the former first-grade teacher count the beat as kids twirled across the studio.

VIDEO: ‘You can always dance it out’

Taylor fought hard for this wood-floored, mirror-walled space. She begged officials to include it in the building’s $11.6 million renovation.

“You gotta get this for my kids,” she had said.

Her school opened in August. It’s the only elementary in Atlanta Public Schools with a dance studio.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A robust arts program— with music, visual arts, drama and dance — is part of Taylor’s vision of a well-rounded education. In this turnaround school, where students lag in reading and math, weaving the arts into the curriculum would be a key strategy, not a luxury.

Students who’d never taken a dance class would discover ballet and study opera and play the drums loudly as their music teacher called out each quarter note above the happy din.

Such opportunities can boost academics and attendance and reduce disciplinary problems, some experts have found. The experiences are especially valuable for low-income students.

The arts would get kids excited to come to school and pull parents in, too.

But shortly after the school year started, the dance teacher resigned. An empty studio would mean an opportunity unfulfilled.

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Why the AJC is writing these stories

In some schools, students just don’t have the same foundation for learning as others. It’s a problem Atlanta’s school district has been confronting for generations, and the district has been in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project aimed at helping.

Some steps, such as turning six schools over to charter groups to run, have been controversial and watched nationally, since educational inequity is a problem all over the country, not just in metro Atlanta.

Teachers know that whatever they do in the classroom, they can’t control some factors – parental involvement and generational poverty, for example – that have powerful influence on their students’ ability to learn. Atlanta’s results so far underscore just how difficult turnaround is. Schools have seen some gains, but there’s minimal evidence it’s because of the turnaround investments.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know: Just how does the school give students the proper education they’ll ultimately need to compete with their peers for adequate jobs, and to be responsible, productive citizens in our communities?

To answer that question, we knew we had to be in the classrooms and hallways of a school trying to find solutions to these challenges.

We knew we had to speak to community residents and parents.

The AJC asked Atlanta school officials to give us unprecedented access to a school being targeted for special attention because of its long-standing challenges.

Harper-Archer Elementary, the “turnaround school” the district selected when the AJC proposed this project, is new. The west Atlanta school opened this year to serve neighborhoods that are among the poorest in Georgia.

School officials allowed our reporter and photographers a close-up view of the people and the everyday goings-on in the life of that school community.

Over several months, AJC reporter Vanessa McCray and photographers Alyssa Pointer and Bob Andres spent many days observing, interviewing and recording the efforts and the motivations of the dozens of people who are trying to ensure that what’s in store in the lives of the children there can be brighter than their beginning.

Successful communities support and invest in the education of children. Strong schools use that support to set high expectations and to execute bold, cutting-edge initiatives.

Not every school in Atlanta can claim such success. For some city schools, the challenges seem too great to overcome.

Students at Harper-Archer Elementary School come to class each day from Atlanta neighborhoods struggling with the harmful side effects of generational poverty. They also suffer from inconsistent parental engagement and many of these children lack basic reading skills – the foundation for academic accomplishment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know, just how do teachers, principals, counselors, and other school staffers try to give these children the proper education they’ll ultimately need to compete with their peers for adequate jobs, and to be responsible, productive citizens in our communities?

Atlanta Public Schools gave the AJC unprecedented access to the inner workings of its efforts to turnaround this school. The stories inside this special section are the result of our reporter and photographers spending dozens of hours at Harper-Archer over several months.

If the folks at Harper-Archer are successful with their bold plans, the school will serve as a template for other urban schools struggling to meet basic standards.

We interviewed school leaders, teachers, community residents, and parents, to get the full picture of the magnitude of the challenge and of those who are trying to find solutions.

They are stories of determination and hope.

- Todd C. Duncan, Senior Editor Local Government and Education

Perrymond, 43, energetic and cheerful, is a lifelong dancer. She studied jazz, ballet and African dance, though she'd never taught it. Since graduating from Clark Atlanta University, she has worked as an elementary school teacher and focused her master's degree on reading and literacy.

Taylor hired her to teach first grade at Harper-Archer, and ever since, Perrymond had joked that if she went missing from her classroom they’d find her in the dance studio. She was shocked when the principal asked her to step in as dance teacher. She asked, “Are you for real? Don’t play.”

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Two weeks later, near the end of October, Taylor stopped by the studio to check in.

Not only was Perrymond new to teaching dance, but in 14 days her students were scheduled to perform on APS’ biggest stage. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen had chosen Harper-Archer as the site of her final State of the District address, an annual event that has grown into a high-profile media showcase.

The novice dance teacher rehearsed with her students while her boss beamed. Afterward, Taylor turned to face the corner, away from the studio mirror that multiplied all those little dancers and their big dreams. She cried, collected herself and hugged Perrymond.

Eyes brimmed with tears, hearts with pride.

“She’s just so happy doing what she loves to do,” the principal said. “She loves to teach, but she also loves to dance.”

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Arts, academics blend

Harper-Archer aims to infuse academics with the arts.

More than 200 large color photographs provided by the Besharat Arts Foundation Museum & Gallery hang in the hallways. In classrooms, teachers blend the arts with core subjects.

Harper-Archer’s embrace of the arts-integration model made it a pioneer among district schools, according to Sara Womack, the APS fine and performing arts coordinator. She believes in the approach because children come to school for athletics and the arts.

“It hooks them in and engages them into the school culture,” Womack said.

Children want to create, said Taylor. She thinks the focus also will bring families into the school to see what their kids are up to.

A volunteer group of teachers are receiving specialized training on how to use the arts to explain and expand upon other academic subjects and make learning fun. Other teachers are encouraged to try small steps. It can be as simple as having first graders draw a picture to illustrate a sentence they wrote or playing a song that helps older students learn historical facts.

In addition to offering dance, chorus, music and band, the school partnered with Atlanta arts organizations such as Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Opera and the dance program Moving in the Spirit. Experts come into the school to lead multiweek residencies.

Researchers have found that disciplinary infractions go down and writing test scores go up when schools increase arts learning, according to a 2019 study of Houston schools. Those involved in arts programs are also more likely to graduate, Womack said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Affluent families can pay to give their children after-school dance lessons or send them to music camp. For lower-income students, school may be the only place where they get those experiences.

“I just want them to have the same opportunities as everyone else’s kids, regardless of where they live or what their background is,” said Perrymond, whose grandmother dragged her down the street to her first dance class at Harlem School of the Arts during one formative summer growing up in New York City.

“I know that other children are going to do well regardless, because they have back-up. They have support systems. They have a lot of things that our kids don’t have,” she said.

She has spent most of her career in APS, but left for a couple of years to teach in Abu Dhabi. When she moved back last spring, she heard about the new school.

“I just want to make a difference,” Perrymond said. “This was the best place that I could do that.”

Improving students’ reading and math skills is a huge and necessary focus at Harper-Archer. Many children struggle in the core subjects they need to master to be successful in school.

Dance offers freedom, Perrymond said. There are no wrong answers in the studio.

“When they come in here … I don’t know what level they are on. I don’t know if they’re the best reader. I don’t know if they don’t like science,” she said. “All I know is, ‘Here’s a free space for you to dance. Here’s a free space for you to express yourself.’ ”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

‘Always dance it out’

On a Thursday in late January, Perrymond began a second-grade dance class with a simple question: How do you feel?

Eager hands shot up. “Excited,” said a child. “Happy” and “sleepy” others chimed in. When one little girl said “ignored,” her teacher wanted to know more.

“You feel like you’re not getting enough attention from people?” Perrymond asked. “What would you like to happen today? How can we change that?”

“Dance,” replied the girl.

Half an hour later, after the kids had stretched and lunged and learned new steps, Perrymond asked if anyone’s mood had changed. The girl who had felt ignored said she now felt “pumped.”

Perrymond tries to use her class to help children who may not have the social and emotional skills to express themselves. Many students seek her out. When they pop by the studio to say hello, she greets them with a “hi, boo” and a hug.

“Sometimes children can’t write what they’re feeling, sometimes they can’t speak what they’re feeling,” she said. “But you can always dance it out.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Her love for dance runs deep.

As captain of Clark Atlanta’s Essence dance team, she performed alongside the Mighty Marching Panthers band. She danced in the 1996 Olympics opening ceremonies in Atlanta and has traveled overseas to dance. She considers becoming a dance teacher the “biggest break of them all.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A few of her students seem to be falling in love, too.

Second-grader Kimora Parker said dancing makes her feel awesome, that it’s one of her favorite parts of school, that she loves learning new moves.

“I want to be a dancer when I grow up,” said Kimora, after a class that shook the fringe on her bright pink boots.

Back in November, the big performance arrived after weeks of rehearsal.

The Harper-Archer dancers stood fearlessly in front of hundreds as the State of the District drew to a close.

Perrymond crouched on the floor. Taylor clasped her hands to her face. The dancers lifted white-gloved hands, reaching high. Jumping, spinning.

Then … applause.

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