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From Red Lake to D.C.: Students perform at John F. Kennedy Center in Washington

Rhozaria McClain, Citizen Cope and Amaya Pemberton at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Submitted photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A pair of Red Lake Middle School students showcased their dance and drum skills in Washington, D.C., last weekend.

Seventh-graders Amaya Pemberton and Rhozaria McClain performed with students from two other Minnesota elementary schools and a trio of professionals at a national talent show for "Turnaround Arts" students at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last Sunday.

Pemberton and McClain freestyle danced to "Let the Drummer Kick it" by singer-songwriter Citizen Cope, who's visited the middle school several times in recent years to help with arts programming there. Cope sang, The Lovin' Spoonful's Mike Arturi helped out on drums, and a line of students danced with Lil' Buck, a noted Los Angeles-based performer.

Red Lake Middle School is one of eight Turnaround Arts schools in Minnesota, which means it gets extra help for arts programming after students there scored in the bottom 5 percent on state tests a few years ago. The program aims to help schools improve by integrating the arts across the school's curriculum, which advocates say helps students achieve, gets them and their families more involved and improves a school's culture and climate.

At Red Lake, that's meant a new theater skills class, musicals, artists-in-residence, collaborations with spoken word poets and rappers, and a pair of visits from Cope. School staff reported a 19 percent enrollment increase, 12 percent better attendance rate, 50 percent fewer suspensions, and bumps to students' reading and math test scores since the school joined the program in 2014.

Pemberton is part of Red Lake Nation and an accomplished singer herself; and McClain is a member of Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma and has an extensive dance background. Their trip to Washington was McClain's first time on an airplane and Pemberton's second.

And their performance with the other two Minnesota schools was one of a dozen from other Turnaround Arts schools across the country. They followed "200: Frederick Douglass," an original and powerful piece about adversity and resilience by students from four Milwaukee-area schools. Pemberton said she liked a Hawaii school's production, which featured ukulele music and dancing.

The seventh-graders also took in some sights in the nation's capital. They visited the National Mall, a Korean War memorial, and Cope took them shopping in Georgetown. (He bought Pemberton some Doc Martens and McClain a pair of basketball jerseys and a hat.)

"I want to go there this summer," McClain said.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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