Susan Poag / The Times-PicayuneArtist educator Kendra M. Harris reviews a lesson linking the history of the Moors with modern-day history and the influence on current music and dance during the Cultural Crossroads Arts Program at Westbank Community School in Marrero. The program, which brings artist educators to work with at-risk students, was founded by and is administered through the Jefferson Parish Arts Society .
Standing before a small group of middle school students at Westbank Community School in Marrero, Kendra Harris demonstrated the first steps of an African courtship dance, shifting her bare feet back and forth across the floor.
"Your hip is leading you, but your body is pushing you over there," said Harris, who wore a traditional Senegalese dress and a blue gele, or scarf, wrapped around her head. "It's kind of flirty, right?"
Her students cautiously followed her movements, gradually picking up speed as they became less self-conscious. Harris told them that this dance was known as the Yankadi and had originated in Mali as a courting ritual that brought men and women together, back in the day when "there weren't clubs like there are now."
"They danced together under the moonlight," she said.
Susan Poag / The Times-PicayuneSeventh-grader David Laieke plays the djembe drum in class during the Cultural Crossroads Art Program at Westbank Community School in Marrero.
At Westbank Community, an alternative school for middle school students who have been expelled, officials believe that an expansion of the program this year is partly responsible for a recent bump in reading scores, measured throughout the year as part of the district's interval testing, according to Karel Sloane-Boekbinder, director of the program. Officials also found a marked improvement in behavior among those students who participated in the program.
According to data supplied by the district, seventh- and eighth-graders saw moderate to significant gains in their reading scores earlier this year, a jump that coincided with an extended, two-month arts program.
The extended artist-in-residency program, which cost $5,000, was funded through Capital One Bank, Sloane-Boekbinder said.
While the arts program has been supplementing the school's curriculum for nearly a decade, Sloane-Boekbinder said the Capital One grant made it possible to lengthen the stints of each artist's residency beyond the typical length of one or two weeks.
"If we can keep the artists longer, the impact is greater," she said.
Susan Poag / The Times-PicayuneArtist-educator Kendra M. Harris reviews a map of Africa with students.
Sloane-Boekbinder said the district is also looking to expand the arts program next year beyond the parish's alternative schools to include Paul Solis Elementary in Gretna, McDonogh 26 Elementary in Gretna and Norbert Rillieux Elementary in Waggaman. The schools were selected, in part, because of their slipping test scores and at-risk student population, although Sloane-Boekbinder stressed that she is hesitant to use the label "at-risk."
"If they can be shown a different approach, they're poised for achievement," she said. "If we can connect and inspire them by using art, they're going to catapult."
Back in their African dance class, students waved their arms, swayed their hips and rapped on African drums. But they also learned elements of African history, including the significance of the Berlin Conference; the influence of the Moors of Northern Africa; and where Mali and Morocco are located on the map.
Part-way through the lesson, seventh-grader David Laieke asked if he'd be allowed to come back to African dance class next week. He said he loves it because it gives him a chance to practice his drumming.
"I used to do African dance when I was little, so it inspires me to do that," he said. "It's fun. And it keeps me out of trouble. When I'm occupied with something I don't get in trouble."