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MPS Turnaround Arts students will perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Roosevelt students rehearse for the Turnaround Arts Showcase, to be held in Washington.Eleven MPS students from Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts will present an original musical work this weekend at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., considered America’s national cultural center.  

The performance — on Sunday, April 7, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater — is for the Turnaround Arts 2024 Student Showcase. The event features young performers from schools around the country that take part in the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program.  

People in Milwaukee can watch the showcase, as well. The 2024 Showcase will be livestreamed on The Kennedy Center YouTube channel and Facebook on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Central time.  

Turnaround Arts is in 57 schools in nine states. It was founded in 2011 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, under the leadership of Michelle Obama, then the First Lady.  

Since 2016, MPS has been the home to all four Turnaround Arts schools in Wisconsin: Roosevelt, Sherman Multicultural Arts School, Lancaster School, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School.  

Roosevelt serves as the hub for the MPS Turnaround Arts schools because it had the infrastructure for arts in place, even though budget cuts in previous years had set it back, said Ja’Rahn Leveston, the local program director for Turnaround Arts schools in MPS since 2019 and an educator and teaching artist in the program since 2016. Roosevelt has an auditorium outfitted for performances, along with two professional-grade dance studios and a recording studio. 

The program’s purpose is two-pronged: to improve academics and climate at schools. 

Turnaround Arts encourages academic success by engaging children through the arts and integrating arts into the curriculum. (MPS also integrates the arts into the curriculum at some other district schools.) Besides their intrinsic value, the arts have been shown to benefit students in other areas of study, as well. 

The arts can be “an academic tool in itself, just of a different kind,” Leveston said. 

The 11 Roosevelt 7th and 8th graders, who have been rehearsing since mid-March, leave Milwaukee for the nation’s capital on Friday, April 5. They’re all veteran performers at Roosevelt, and Turnaround Arts even has been a springboard for some to perform at First Stage Children’s Theater.  

Last fall, Caiden Chambers played the leading role in “Dream, Quickie! Dream!” based on the life of Green Bay Packers great Donald Driver, and Ricki Simonton performed in “The Forgotten Girl.” 

“We’ve really been trying to broaden opportunities for our students and also serve as a conduit for First Stage Children’s Theater,” Leveston said. 

In Washington, the Roosevelt students will perform a musical short called “Frederick,” which celebrates the life of escaped slave, abolitionist, and writer Frederick Douglass in the hip-hop style of “Hamilton.” “You can be the difference, be the change,” is a line they deliver in unison.  

A different group of students, from Roosevelt, Lancaster, MLK, and Sherman, performed “Frederick” in 2018 in Washington, the first and only other Kennedy Center performance by MPS students before the pandemic interrupted the Turnaround Arts showcase. Leveston wrote “Frederick” and produced it with Roosevelt’s orchestra teacher at the time. 

At the students’ rehearsal in early March at Roosevelt, music instructor Brandite Reed  guided them. She looked delighted as the students’ voices harmonized and rose. Reed noted that, incredibly, it was the troupe’s first time singing the piece on stage. Earlier, they had learned their parts and practiced their blocking — synchronizing their movements around the stage. 

The Kennedy Center performance, before an audience of 1,100, is a highlight in a busy year for MPS students in the Turnaround Arts program: 

An acting troupe from Washington, D.C., visited Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. The troupe specializes in playback theater, which gets the audience involved in the performance. The troupe also performed for the school district’s Principal Leadership Institute in February. 

Roosevelt’s multifaceted Black history concert, including a drumline, returned to the stage for the first time since the pandemic began. 

Next, students will rehearse for plays that cap the school year at Roosevelt, Sherman, Lancaster, and MLK schools. The plays are open to the public. 

The Black history concert at Roosevelt on March 1, “African Americans and the Arts,” featured 16 acts that included African dance, singing, and choreography by students, taking place against projected backdrops of legendary performers such as Tina Turner. The concert was a lesson in history and popular culture, as well. 

 In the middle of it was an exhilarating drumline performance. The students, instructed and led by Anthony Hibbler of the Paradigm Entertainment Co., flooded down the aisles of the auditorium while playing their drums and cymbals. They performed their choreographed number at the front of the hall, punctuated with high kicks and fancy stick work.  

About 65 students auditioned for the concert, and 42 were selected to perform. Roosevelt’s Arts Leadership Team chose the musical and dance numbers, considering artists who would be familiar to the students and artists they should be familiar with, to further make it a learning experience.  

“It was exciting to see the number of students who were taking part,” especially because the concert hadn’t been held since before the pandemic, Leveston said. That meant it was a new experience for every student there. 

For students like those at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts, the arts are a way to express themselves, and more.  

“The idea behind the (Turnaround Arts) program is to culturally change how these schools utilize the arts,” Leveston said. That is, to incorporate the arts throughout. Even for children who have no interest in stage programming, for instance, they still are exposed to the arts and visual thinking, which helps them understand complex topics.  

“What I found is, through the stage and the opportunity the arts present, the students are able to set standards for themselves that apply to the classroom” and beyond, Leveston said. The skills they learn might translate to writing an essay, for example. 

Participating in the arts “makes the non-arts stuff more approachable,” he added. A student might think, “I was able to memorize my lines and perform on stage, so I can give that report.” That empowerment, Leveston said, is the most significant outgrowth he’s seen from arts education. 

Using Arts to Resolve Conflict 

The arts also can be a restorative practice. 

At the Verbal Gymnastics performance at Roosevelt in February, actors asked for student stories on themes of conflict and peacemaking. They improvised moments later to act out the stories — to “play it back.” Students then acted out stories themselves; the performance tapped into students’ desire to act and tell their stories. Students participate in the playback theater of Washington acting troupe Verbal Gymnastics.

The idea propelling the performance at Roosevelt was that for every conflict, there can be a peacemaker, Leveston said. In playback theater — an art form originating in Europe that shares audience stories through dance, acting, and music — students also get the perspectives of others, not just their own.  

It falls in line with Turnaround Arts’ use of the arts for restorative practices, he added. Besides exploring creative conflict resolution, playback theater can be used for team and community building and for adapting to change. 

Leveston learned of Verbal Gymnastics through the Kennedy Center’s education conference last year, where educators could network with artists.  

Musicals for Students and the Public 

In May, the musicals begin. Roosevelt Middle School will present “Matilda JR.,” the children’s musical version of author Roald Dahl’s girl-power story. Performances on May 9 and 10 at 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. are open to the public. Some performances draw busloads of children from other schools.  

Last year, 1,000 people attended Roosevelt’s production of “Moana JR.,” the first production since the pandemic. Roosevelt students had been in the middle of rehearsing for “High School Musical” when the pandemic arrived in full force in March 2020, and students everywhere were sent home to quarantine. 

On June 6 and 7, Sherman School will present “Willy Wonka Kids,” the children’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s story of misadventures in a chocolate factory, and Lancaster School will put on “The Jungle Book Kids,” the children’s musical adapted from the Disney animated film and Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves.  

The musicals at Sherman and Lancaster will be the first productions since 2019 for both schools because of the pandemic. Turnaround Arts provides a year’s license to musicals for the schools.   

Leveston, who directs the musicals with assistance from school partner First Stage, noted that the plays do more than entertain their audiences. 

Academic lessons can be tied to a school’s musical; they can stretch from the beginning to the end of the year. A musical can be galvanizing to a school in other ways. 

“It’s really our culminating event, for the value it has building culture,” he said.  

A T-shirt commemorates the Kennedy Center performances by MPS students.Besides motivating the students who perform and the students who watch, the musicals make their mark on a school’s educators. The productions are an “aha” moment for new teachers, who’ll say, “That’s what we’re here for,” Leveston observed, while other teachers say seeing the production energizes and motivates them. “That filled me up,” they’ll say.  

Commemorative T-shirt

Anyone who would like to order a T-shirt commemorating the Turnaround Arts performances of “Frederick” at the Kennedy Center by MPS students can do so through their school secretary or by sending orders to Rebecca Cram at Each shirt is $20.  


Stephen Davis, Media Relations Manager
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