Harding Wows Kal Penn, Turnaround Arts


A member of the Harding school orchestra told Kal Penn: “I feel like it is rude to meet another artist and not give them a hug.”

Des Moines Public Schools – a Turnaround Arts hot zone – is beginning to draw as many celebrities as a Los Angeles Lakers game.

Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, Tony-winner John Lloyd Young, and along with Thursday’s drizzling rain, another name dropped when high-profile actor/producer/civil servant Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame came to town on behalf of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) and spent a full day at Warren G. Harding Middle School where he was enthusiastically absorbed by the “Wolf Pack.”

He sat in on classes ranging from literature and civics to orchestra. He spoke at assemblies that also featured the school’s DJ Wolfpack, the 7th and 8th grade band and spoken word student poets. He helped out with after-school rehearsal for Harding’s upcoming musical.

Penn was joined on his visit by Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Her office oversees the Turnaround Arts program, and she’s a regular visitor to Des Moines and our schools.

What is Harding?” was the title of one of the original student poems recited at the 7th and 8th grade assembly, a question that was answered in many positive ways.

But Harding is also showing its age. The building goes back to 1926. Many of the seats in the auditorium must be original equipment. Some of them are broken and taped-off. Others have seat #’s written on them in black marker. They are relics of the old Harding. The water in the hallway fountains, on the other hand, is cold and fresh. It spouts and flows freely, as do the ideas and hopes and dreams of many of the students there nowadays.

Junice Sibley is an 8th graders who emceed at the assembly. Afterwards she spoke candidly about her Harding experience.

“I was kind of iffy about coming here in 6th grade,” she said.

She had some of the same misconceptions about the school that many outsiders still do; that it was almost a dangerous place for her.

“But I’m so glad I did. We are family here. We care about each other. Arts-wise I’m into singing but I’m also part of the Science Bound program that will lead to a full tuition scholarship at Iowa State when I finish high school.”

Zheyon Johnson is another 8th grader who recited original work during the assembly. He feels the visit from someone of Kal Penn’s stature is evidence of what he and Junice and their classmates already knew: that Harding is indeed turning around, just as the federal grants from PCAH to Harding and the other schools in the North High feeder pattern (Cattell, Findley, Oak Park and Madison) intend. The idea is to act on research which indicates that integration of the arts throughout a school curriculum leads to increased achievement overall.

“Harding is spectacular now,” boasted Zheyon. “I feel that’s why someone like Kal Penn, who I know from Harold and Kumar, would want to come here and see.”

Zheyon’s poem touched on many of society’s ills, topics he’ll continue to address when he starts high school next year and enrolls in the Urban Leadership program at Central Campus.

Penn was patient throughout the day, posing for selfies with his adopted schoolmates. And he made it clear they haven’t seen the last of him.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back this year,” he said. “But I’ll definitely be back, so you 6th and 7th graders, I’ll see you again. You can’t get rid of me. I chose Harding so you’re stuck with me.”

This from a guy whose resume includes a stint as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, working on the staff of the current POTUS, not the one the building was named for when it opened in 1926.

Video of Kal Penn’s Visit to Harding Middle School

Photos of Kal Penn’s Visit to Harding Middle School

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