Sweet music at Savoy Elementary

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

On a street once known for unsavory activity and in a school previously considered a failure, sweet sounds of progress and hope are being heard. Things get even better Tuesday: Famed international artist Yo-Yo Ma and renowned dancer Damian Woetzel are scheduled to appear at Savoy Elementary.

That Ward 8 school is fast becoming a venue for innovative, quality educational programs. Principal Patrick Pope has demonstrated how the right leadership, with a dedicated and resourceful staff, can begin turning around a school.

Savoy has won a national competitive grant, becoming one of only eight schools nationwide to be selected by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, or PCAH, for its "Turnaround Arts Initiative"; last month, the entire PCAH, including Alfre Woodard, visited the east of the Anacostia River school. Recently, more than 100 students and parents participated in a Flash Mob arts performance at the National Portrait Gallery. Now, Woetzel and Ma will conduct master classes.

"This is a major event. It will help kids see how powerful the arts are and what they can do," Pope told me. The artists, joined by students, will provide a closing performance for the entire school community.

Ma, a cellist and 2001 National Medal of Arts recipient, has recorded more than 75 albums and won 16 Grammys. He also is artistic director of the Silk Road Project. Woetzel, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, also is founding director of the Jerome Robbins New Essential Works Program and director of the summer Vail International Dance Festival.

Both men are part of PCAH. The Washington Performing Arts Society was instrumental in bringing them to Savoy. "It's a very important partnership we want to try to forge," said Pope.

Since arriving at Savoy 16 months ago, Pope and his team have developed an intensive arts-centered curriculum. The Turnaround Initiative, a two-year project, provides the school with financial support, professional experts and other resources to strengthen their efforts.

"Everyone knows that to get to the point where kids are achieving, you have to get [them] to the place where they are excited about what's happening in school," said Pope. "We are using the arts as the first lever of engagement."

It's all impressive. I am not surprised, however. In 2011, I saluted Patrick Pope as my Person of the Year. After growing Hardy Middle School into an award-winning institution, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, acting on some misguided plan, booted him out and shipped him to a central-office cubicle. Chancellor Kaya Henderson decided to send him temporarily to Savoy. Pope asked to stay.

Back then, Savoy was a basket case, according to one teacher. It is becoming a jewel. Enrollment this year exceeded projections by 18 percent, offering tangible evidence parents are satisfied.

"I do think parents are sophisticated enough to know high-quality programs," said Pope. "I never felt we couldn't compete with charters."

Let's hope his brand of faith and confidence is contagious. DCPS needs more of it.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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