In an effort to boost low-performing schools across the country, four schools on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were selected to join a national program that integrates arts and music into curriculum.

The schools – Solen Middle School, Cannonball Elementary, Standing Rock Middle School and Standing Rock Elementary School – have been selected to join the White House's Turnaround Arts program, which uses arts education to improve academic achievement.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities started the Turnaround Arts initiative five years ago, which now operates in 68 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Staff of the president's committee toured the schools within the Solen Public Schools and Standing Rock Community/Fort Yates Public School District in February.

At the White House last month, Michelle Obama announced the Standing Rock schools will join the Turnaround Arts 2016 program during the 2nd Annual Turnaround Arts Talent Show.

Representatives from all four Standing Rock schools were invited to the White House for the announcement.

The program helps poorly performing elementary and middle schools enhance arts and music instruction, and offers professional development for teachers to integrate arts across subject areas, such as science and cultural studies.

"It's a really great opportunity for not only teachers, but students too,"said Jeff Brandt, principal at Solen High School, who visited the White House.

The integration of arts, such as dance, theater and music, into curriculum has been shown to improve students' academic performance.

A 2015 evaluation of schools in the program found that from 2011 to 2014, schools saw an average improvement of 12.6 percent in reading proficiency and 22.5 percent in math proficiency. Attendance rates also increased, and in-school and out-of-school suspensions decreased.

“This program has come at the right time for us because we are definitely looking at changes that we feel need to be made," said Robyn Baker, Fort Yates superintendent.

Such changes include schools focusing more on a "well-rounded" education that includes arts and music, rather than just reading and math, Baker said. 

“Like every other school in the nation, we have been really stressing about the math and the reading and then forgetting about the arts," she said.

Artist mentors will also "adopt" schools through the three-year program, hosting workshops and giving lessons.

Jane Fonda will visit Solen Middle School, R&B singer and jazz recording artist Ledisi will go to Cannonball Elementary School, DJ IZ, actor and hip-hop artist, will be at Standing Rock Middle School, and Dave Matthews was selected to join Standing Rock Elementary School.

The artists will visit the schools sometime in the fall, according to Barb Sandstrom, local program director of Turnaround Arts: North Dakota.

North Dakota Council on the Arts and the North Dakota Humanities Council have also signed on to the program.

School principals and staff members will visit Washington, D.C. at the end of the month for a 5-day conference to learn more about the program and how to incorporate it into classrooms and at the schools.

“(Teachers are) really positive about this, and if it’s a way to get kids engaged in learning, they’re on board with it," Brandt said.

“We’re really excited about it because I just think good things are going to come from it," Baker, Fort Yates superintendent said.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or