It’s a Friday in December, but Lisa Perkinson’s dance class at Binford Middle School isn’t taking it easy.
The students—some of whom had never had a dance class until they started school here less than three years ago—are practicing solos for upcoming auditions for the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, an arts magnet serving more than a dozen districts in Virginia.
Watching the students perform their own choreography in a full-fledged studio complete with special flooring, it’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, low-achieving Binford faced potential closure. It had just 205 students, or about half of its current 410-student enrollment.
But Christie-Jo Adams, who had just stepped into the newly created position of instructional specialist for fine arts for the Richmond school district, pitched an idea to save the school: Launch an integrated-arts program and open enrollment up to the whole city.
It was one of the most significant steps in her mission to get students in this urban school district, 75 percent of whom live in poverty, the chance to paint or sculpt, or dress up and go to a venue to hear choral music. (The district offered some of those experiences before she came on, but it wasn’t consistent, particularly in higher poverty areas.)
“I think it can change their life 110 percent. I believe this is the exit [from poverty], through the arts,” she said. “Once they see that there is another life, there’s expression, there’s happiness, you can get paid for dancing, you can get paid for singing, you can make a life out of drawing, I just think this can change their path so much.”
It’s a path that Adams, 47, has personally experienced. She grew up in Richmond and attended schools in the district, one of five daughters of a principal and an English teacher-turned-lab technician.
Adams struggled with math in elementary school. But she gained confidence in herself—and a new enthusiasm for school—when she picked up the violin, at age 9. She played in the Richmond Youth Symphony, where she is now a part-time conductor. And her passion for music held fast. In high school, she refused to join her friends for senior skip day until after orchestra practice.
Adams’ family encouraged her love of music, even though they didn’t have money for pricey private lessons. By the time Adams was ready to graduate, she played well enough to snag a partial college scholarship. She credits her teachers in Richmond public schools.
‘A Back Door’ to Learning
Adams, who had spent 16 years as Binford’s orchestra director prior to taking the district leadership post, got the blessing for the integrated-arts program from the school board and then-superintendent Dana Bedden.
Then Adams helped get the program up and running, including working with Perkinson to create the dance studio in what had been an empty room on the more than century-old building’s bottom floor.
The first year of the turnaround was rocky. The school’s principal, Melissa Rickey, a high-flying former art teacher, needed a specialist in weaving arts into the curriculum to help her reshape instruction.
So Adams went after money and other resources to help. She applied for the Turnaround Arts program, an initiative started in the Obama White House under the leadership of former first lady Michelle Obama and now run by the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The program provides districts with a roadmap for arts integration, a host of teaching strategies, and other resources, including a celebrity artist partner. (Binford is working with pop singer and Richmond native Jason Mraz, who shot a music video at the school featuring some of its students.)
Adams added two other schools on the city’s impoverished east side to the program: Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which is sandwiched between a housing project and the city’s parole office, and its feeder school, Woodville Elementary.
The turnaround arts program is bolstered by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, aimed at getting teachers at all three schools certified in arts integration through the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts program. Thirty-four teachers are part of the first cohort and have begun coursework. Another 50 are slated to join next year.
Adams’ vision is for all of Richmond’s 46 schools to have a specialist certified in arts integration, an instructional technique that encourages teachers to infuse dance, drawing, theater, and more into core academic classes. To make it work, general education teachers often pair up with arts teachers to present a lesson or introduce a concept.
Adams’ goal is for teachers in the turnaround schools to make arts integration a regular part of their instruction. She believes that will make academic subjects less intimidating and more relevant for their students.
“I’d like for the teachers in every classroom to be comfortable teaching students outside of their comfort zone,” Adams said. “And so that when students have trouble learning, I want them to be able to pull in that music or that math teacher and not be intimidated. … Our kids need to read and nothing should take precedence over that, absolutely not. I just want to get teachers to understand there’s a back door to it, there’s a side door to it.
“Everything doesn’t have to be hit head on in the most traditional way.”
Perkinson, for example, who is participating in the certification program, teamed up with a math teacher to use dance to help students grasp the tricky concept of rational and irrational numbers.
Adams assists with the arts integration and turnaround work at the three schools on top of her already demanding job of overseeing more than 50 different courses in visual arts, theater, chorus, orchestra, band, and dance across the 24,000-student urban district.
Adams has made sure every 4th and 5th grader has access to orchestra and band—instrumental music classes that were only available in certain schools when she started. She started a citywide arts festival that takes place every March and gives students of all ability levels the chance to showcase their talents.
She’s served as a mentor and talent-spotter, encouraging Shelley Greene, a former music teacher, to become one of two turnaround-arts specialists who help implement the integration program at all three participating schools. (One of Adams’ own mentors, Suzanne Mallory-Parker, who headed up performance arts in a neighboring district, came out of retirement to fill the other role.)
And she’s worked to make sure that her teachers have the materials and professional development they need.
“Since we’ve had Christie, individual teachers don’t have to fight as much,” for funding or supplies, said Greg McCallum, who serves as the band director for both Richmond Community High School and Foxx Elementary School. “She understands the plight that we’re going through of trying to make things work with limited resources.”
I’d like for the teachers in every classroom to be comfortable teaching students outside of their comfort zone.
Adams has kept her vision going, even amid major changes in the district, which has gone through three leaders since Adams stepped into the job in 2014. Her direct supervisor, Autumn Nabors, started earlier this school year. But she was aware of Adams’ reputation before she joined the district.
“She is a true workaholic. She has a high work ethic for herself and the people around her,” said Nabors, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
Eric Rhoades, Nabors’ predecessor, said it’s hard to get educators who are already under the pressure of teaching at a low-performing school to embrace something as outside-the-box as arts integration. But Adams and her team have made real progress.
“Christie-Jo is really good at building relationships with teachers and thinking about where the entry points are in schools,” said Rhoades, now a secondary science specialist in nearby Henrico County.
Her talent for collaboration also extends to the district’s myriad community partnerships, he said. Adams, who sits on the board of several community arts organizations, has been able to maintain relationships and enlist even more outside help in meeting her goals.
For instance, she assisted the Richmond Symphony when it threw a series of fundraisers for schools in the city’s poorest areas, in part by explaining what sort of donations the district needed. The events raised about $175,000 to buy choir risers, kilns, band instruments, and more to support arts for students in the east end neighborhood that serves Martin Luther King and Woodville. She and her team also worked with the symphony to start Vibe, an afterschool strings program now housed at Woodville Elementary serving about 30 children.
“She sets a vision for what she wants and she’ll go to the community organization and say, hey, ‘can you give us time to be able to rehearse in the space or perform in this space?’ ” said Janet Starke, the executive director at the Virginia Commission for the Arts, a state agency that supports arts funding. “She’s never afraid to ask, she’s so incredible and just sort of heartwarming to work with that nobody is going to say no to her.”
Adams sees herself as having come full circle. She wants to make sure that students get the same opportunities she had, especially those in poverty.
“I look at someone like Misty Copeland. Had she not been exposed to dance as a young girl, would she be a ballerina?” Adams said of the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. “Probably not. But how do we know that the next Misty Copeland is not in that housing project over there?” Adams said, gesturing to the area around Martin Luther King Middle.
“We’ll never know until she takes dance and somebody can show her what she can do.”