By Jacob Campbell, Program Manager for Turnaround Arts: California

I recently made a trip out to Santa Ana, CA, to see how Sierra Preparatory Academy’s first year as a Turnaround Arts: California partner school has been going, and I was blown away by the infusion of arts projects and instructional strategies that have begun to permeate all areas of this special school.

On arrival, I met with Julie de la Pena, one of the school counselors who also runs the Sierra Care Center and is a member of the school’s Arts Leadership Team (ALT). While the other school counselor is focused on college and career readiness, de la Pena’s role is geared toward social-emotional support and resources. We spoke about her goals in regards to the Sierra Care Center, which students typically self-select to visit, and the ways in which the arts can contribute to creating a safe, inviting space while also giving students alternative avenues to express emotions that are difficult to verbalize. During our brief conversation, one student dropped into the center when he has scheduled to attend his arts elective. He told de la Pena that he “didn’t like art.” Without skipping a beat, de la Pena pulled out some modelling clay for the student to “play” with while they talked. I watched this student sculpt intricate figures as he spoke about “not being a creative person.” Needless to say, this student was full of imaginative vision, and de la Pena made sure to use his clay creations as an entry point to dive deeper into the underlying challenges that brought him to the center. De la Pena is looking forward to collaborating with Joanne Brown, a 6th grade social studies, ELA, and art teacher, to use the arts to reinforce the goals of the Sierra Care Center — one idea is a sticky-note mural!

I went on to visit Kim Fernandez’s Special Day class, where students and their aides were working diligently to transform paint chips and colored tape into holiday cards for residents of local assisted living and senior centers.

This was followed by a quick peek into Linda Jacobs’ 6th grade ELA class. Jacobs is in her 48th year of teaching (wow!), and she expressed how excited she was for the opportunity and flexibility to utilize the arts to support her curriculum in ways that she hasn’t been able to since her earlier years in the classroom. “Art makes students smarter, happier, and opens pathways to college” she shared as she showed me her students’ recently penned “found poems” and a pastel project she introduced to reinforce ideas of contrast and metaphor.

Students in Irene Prestinary’s visual arts elective used glue and chalk to create stunning insect renderings a la Albrecht Dürer’s “Stag Beetle.”

While I initially planned to visit Brad Betz’s science class to check out “Atom Cubes” that his students had created, I was so engaged by his masterful lecture that weaved together the history of World War II and principles of chemistry while utilizing local gangs in the school’s community to ground students’ understanding — cross-curricular teaching and learning at it’s finest! To top off this amazing string of classroom visits, Rosemarie McCabe and her students walked me through an incredible project they were finishing up that utilized geometry and the art of quilting to demonstrate exponential growth.

After school ended, I stuck around to attend a Sierra Prep staff meeting. In true Turnaround Arts fashion, the meeting began with a few “shoutouts” to publicly acknowledge great work staff members noticed their peers engaging in. Following a deep dive into disciplinary data collected as part of the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, ALT lead and science teacher Kelsey Cronmiller positioned an arts-based strategy learned at the 2016 Turnaround Arts Summer Leadership Retreat as a potential solution to waning student focus during key times of the school day. Cronmiller introduced her colleagues to Focus 5’s Acting Right, which uses drama as a classroom management tool, school-wide. This arts-based strategy that provides students with the tools to remain calm, focused, and balanced was well-received by the Sierra Prep staff, and they offered many suggestions for how to thoughtfully weave this tool into the school day. One teacher even suggested that it become part of the daily routine via the school’s morning announcements over the loudspeaker. In wrapping up the meeting, Principal Jesse Church applauded his team, noting that this was the “best staff meeting [they’ve] ever had” and praising the group for “having a positive, growth mindset, keeping students’ needs at the forefront, and striving to help kids grow and be more successful.”

While it’s not always easy to identify shifts in school culture and climate as a teacher or administrator juggling daily responsibilities, it is so rewarding for me to track positive growth between my site visits and celebrate the big wins that sometimes require an outside eye to point out. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Sierra Prep!