Dance teacher Brittney Porter perched atop a blue chair in the middle of the gymnasium at Dolores T. Aaron Academy on Wednesday, leading a sea of second-graders in green tie-dye T-shirts in a whirling dance.
As the kids shook, swiveled, wiggled and grooved, Graham Nash, of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash, strummed his guitar and crooned.
“You have tremendous energy,” he exclaimed.
The scene wasn’t a folk music festival but a celebration of a new national arts program that has joined forces with the New Orleans East school, which has students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
TurnAround Arts, a partnership with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, provides schools with arts education resources such as supplies, instruments and local mentors.
The organization brought Nash, New York Times columnist David Brooks and actress Alfre Woodard to town for the celebration.
The trio, bedecked in colorful Mardi Gras beads, participated alongside students performing spoken word, poetry, rap, dance and more.
Jennie Moctezuma, the local program director for TurnAround Arts, said the program would not only help beef up arts offerings at the school but also stimulate new forms of arts-based learning.
“The idea is that the arts can be a whole school reform approach,” she said. One example, she said, would be using music to help teach math.
According to Moctezuma, Aaron Academy will be the third school in New Orleans to partner with the program. The others are ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy and ReNEW McDonogh City Park Academy.
Moctezuma said many of the performances Wednesday were inspired by the shooting of Alton Sterling by a Baton Rouge police officer in July. The shooting of Sterling, who is black, by a white police officer sparked days of protests.
Fourth-grade students at Wednesday’s event carried signs with hashtags like “Black lives matter,” “No more killing” and “Human lives matter.”
They joined Woodard in a mini-protest circle in the middle of the gymnasium, decrying violence.
Afterward, two students read letters they’d written about the effects of racism in their community and also their relationship to politics.
“I think that Hillary Clinton should win the presidency,” one child said, to huge applause from the crowd.
Perhaps the day's most stunning performance was by an eighth-grade student who is a rhythmic gymnastics champion.
The girl, clad in a green-sequined outfit, performed handsprings and pirouetted across the stage while rolling a silver ball around in her hands.
Porter, the dance teacher, said she was excited about her students' performance.
“I love to see their faces when they get to show off what they’ve been working on,” she said.
Band director Andy Bower said he not only expects to get more musical equipment from the partnership but also is happy about his students being able to work with more teaching artists.
Additionally, he said, he thinks the partnership will bring more arts within classrooms and not solely as electives.
Bower’s crew of musicians, the school’s brass band, closed out the morning with a lively second-line.
As drums pounded and horns blared, Nash, Woodard and a stream of other visitors boogied around the gymnasium, orange handkerchiefs shaking furiously in their hands.