This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

Aug. 29

I was excited to visit Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord earlier this week to see the students, staff and parents showing famous artists and White House officials how they are improving their school by integrating visual arts, drama and music into their classes.

Alejandra Ceja, executive director of The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence, said Meadow Homes is a model for underperforming schools around the country that want to find ways to engage students.

"I want you to know you're putting this conversation on the map and people are paying attention to what's happening here," Ceja said during a round-table discussion with Mt. Diablo school district staff, Monument Community Partnership representatives and parents. "This is exactly what we need to continue to do across the country. And for us, it's going to be so critical when we go into those emerging communities -- Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee -- where there's parents and students that are trying to figure out: How do they become more of a community in the school district? And so we're definitely going to take away a lot of the information that was shared and follow up."


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Principal Mary-Louise Newling, teachers and parents talked enthusiastically about how rigorous instruction in painting, drawing, dance, singing and instrumental music is grabbing and keeping students' interest, including some who previously didn't want to come to school or had behavior problems. Vice Principal Margo Peckham said the parent community at the school is very active and interested in what their children are doing, with some meetings drawing 100 people.

John Abodeely, deputy director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said hearing about the parent involvement at the school gave him goose bumps. At some schools, he said, the only time parents visit is for disciplinary issues.

The premise of the "Turnaround Arts" program Abodeely is overseeing, he said, is that art is not a flower, it's a wrench.

"The arts are not something you provide to students when you've fixed all the other problems," he said. "Just like music is not something that's been a part of humanities after we've figured out all of our other problems. It's been a part of our soul and heart forever. So, the arts are a critical element in reform strategies."

Despite the impressive work going on at Meadow Homes, some parents and teachers expressed frustration about the negative reputation the school has in the Concord community. Many people don't understand how special the school is, and some students fail to live up to their potential after they leave, one teacher said.

"We want them to take that empowerment with them beyond Meadow Homes," she said. "They sense it here. We believe in them. But, there's a point where I see them come back -- and I know how smart they were and I know what they could have achieved -- and I see that they didn't. And so that saddens me."

The teacher said that when she tells people where she works, she often gets the response: "Oh."

Instead, she said she wants people to say, "Wow, that must be a great place to work!"

"Because that's what I feel every day," she said. "I feel honored to come to work here."

Choking back tears, she added: "And I just want the community of Concord to realize that."

Opera singer Carla Dirlikov, who dazzled the students with a mezzo-soprano song from "Carmen," along with two Spanish songs, said she wants to reach out to other artists to help bring music into schools. Representatives from the Monument Community Partnership said they believe more community members -- including elected officials -- may be willing to visit the school and possibly partner on programs or activities. Newling said the school will need these kinds of partnerships to continue to flourish after the campus' School Improvement Grant runs out in June. She described the school's transformation as nothing short of a "renaissance."

How do you think the community can help to support the arts in schools?