STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, N.D. - The walls of Standing Rock Elementary School and Standing Rock Middle School are lined with artwork and the sound of music reverberates from the classrooms.
For both of the schools' administrators and teachers, a real change has occurred in the past two school years. Morale among students and teachers has improved at the schools on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which faces challenges of poverty. Through the arts, self-confidence among students has been boosted, the middle school principal said.
This is the second year since the schools were selected to join the national Turnaround Arts program, which infuses art-based learning into curriculum.
On Tuesday, Jan. 9, both schools were surprised with a visit from Taboo, a Mexican-American and Native American hip hop artist and member of the group, the Black Eyed Peas, and Mic Jordan, also a hip hop artist and enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe Tribe. Their visit aligned with the schools' efforts to bring more artists, particularly Native American artists, to speak with students.
In a classroom Tuesday, Darlene Schrenk used drums to teach kindergartners syllables. Each student was assigned a drum to beat on, and they took turns taking the lead in an activity where one student stood in the middle of the group and acted as the conductor.
Arts-inspired activities like this allows has allowed more freedom in her classroom, said Schrenk, who is in her ninth year teaching at Standing Rock.
Virginia Long Feather, principal of Standing Rock Elementary School, said through the Turnaround Arts program the school has been able to revamp teaching and learning. The shift has been motivational for faculty, and Long Feather said she has noticed more enthusiasm among students.
"What this brings for our school is hope," she said. "The climate here is so much better."
The 420-student school incorporates arts into reading, math and science, Long Feather said. Additionally, they have been able to include Native American culture and language into their studies.
Artists on Tuesday also stopped by Standing Rock Middle School. They visited Crissy Archambault's seventh- and eighth-grade science classroom, which was covered in colorful artwork, including a diagram of the water cycle, drawings of cells and outlines of the solar system.
"I love it, because that the type of education she wants to do," said Archambault, who is in her first year of teaching.
Archambault incorporates STEM - known as science, technology, engineering and mathematics - into art. For example, one of her lessons involves students tracing their bodies and drawing the body systems.
Art is invaluable to her students, she said.
"As native people, were are anesthetic; we need to touch to learn," she said.
Turnaround Arts started in 2011 under former President Barack Obama administration and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. The program started off as a pilot project, blending art into curriculum to help eight of the nation's lowest performing schools.
In 2014, an outside evaluation of these schools found attendance rates went up and disciplinary referrals decreased. Students' math and reading proficiency rates also increased over the course of three years.
The Turnaround Arts program, currently led by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, provides professional development and resources to schools in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and public-private partnerships.
Children who are highly engaged in the arts are four times more likely to finish school, said Kathy Fletcher, national director of Turnaround Arts.
"We feel like the kids who don't have access to the arts are arguable the ones who need it the most," Fletcher said, noting many students who lack access to the arts in school exist in high-poverty communities.
The Turnaround Arts program currently works at 73 schools. Through her visits at these schools, Fletcher said she has observed a sea of change among students.
"Oftentimes kids who were getting into trouble a lot or not coming to school, when they find their passion through the arts, it's life-changing," she said.
Lisa Bordeaux-Taken Alive, principal of Standing Rock Middle School, which has 210 students, said the first year as part of the Turnaround Arts program she wanted to alter her school building and put more artwork on the walls. Now, the school is adorned with drawings and paintings by students. This year, she said the school shifted to become trauma-sensitive, and is attempting to use art to heal students who have been exposed to trauma.
The school also put together groups of students that explore various extracurriculars and the arts. This year, the school assembled a set of students who received the most write-ups in one year, and they did graffiti spray-painting about family and respect. Their spray-painted canvases are displayed in the cafeteria, some in Lakota language, including one with the word, "Kola," which means friend.
On Tuesday, the seventh- and eighth-grade bands displayed their musical talents for artists Taboo and Mic Jordan.
Mic Jordan, who is a national Turnaround Arts artist currently working with Standing Rock's elementary and middle schools, said he can relate to the struggles of Native American youth, and said he is glad to show that they can achieve their dreams, whether through art or any other form.
After the band played, students, faculty and staff broke out into dancing in the cafeteria. Taboo, who is also a national Turnaround Arts artist, break-danced with some of the students.
"That's the message; it's simple, it's hope, it's inspiration, it's motivation to keep on fighting, because that's what we need. We need to tell stories, change the narrative of upliftment and encourage indigenous kids to say, 'Hey, we can make it,'" Taboo said.