“I’m in!” DJ IZ Avila told the 4th and 5th graders at Moulton Elementary School first thing Wednesday morning, and they were extremely glad to hear it.

How many schools can claim a five-time Grammy winner who performed at a presidential inauguration and has sold 50 million records as a member of their family? Besides Moulton, only a handful across the country, according to Avila, who told the Moulton students that he considers them “my kids” and himself “your human mascot.”

Avila’s here this week as part of the Turnaround Arts initiative that’s revitalizing the schools in the DMPS Northside feeder pattern.

Broadway star and Tony winner John Lloyd Young as well as the Silk Road Project, a brainchild of famed cellist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Yo-Yo Ma, are back in town, too, making the rounds at Madison, Oak Park, Cattell and Findley, the flagship of the district’s TA fleet that started it all back in 2012.

Avila was welcomed with a rousing performance by the capoeiristas from the Moulton Art Club, who demonstrated capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music. It was a spirited expression of both body language and Portuguese, followed by some lively Q&A with the guest of honor.

“I am here to reenergize you,” Avila said (mission accomplished!), “and remind you about the importance of imagination. When I was a boy, my dreams were far-fetched. Yours should be, too.”

Avila lives in California, the home state of Moulton principal Eddie McCulley.

“Eddie is from ‘Cali’ and when I met him I saw through his eyes straight to his heart,” said DJ IZ. “I saw his passion for you kids. I plan to come back here and DJ some events with you.”

Meanwhile, at Madison Elementary School, the school was breaking in its brand new gymnasium/event space with the help of two Silk Road enemblists – violinist Shaw Pong Liu and choreographer/dancer Preeti Vasudevan. Wednesday’s assembly was the first one in the recently completed gym. They also worked with Jo Walker’s 1st grade class at Madison, including a lesson on how music and dance can even be used to learn math.

Later they, along with Young, Avila, Winston Cox, Director of Implementation for TA in Washington D.C. (where he was formerly a school principal), TA Assistant Manager Emilia Gore and Kathleen Davenport, Arts Integration Specialist at Moulton and Findley schools, met with DMPS Superintendent Dr. Tom Ahart at district offices on Fleur Drive.

What could have been a perfunctory meet-and-greet turned out to be a vigorous discussion that may have run longer than district Visual Arts Curriculum Coordinator Ben Heinen allowed for on the visiting artists’ itinerary.

The participants, some of whom hadn’t met one another previously, shared formative experiences and swapped showbiz shoptalk.

Dr. Ahart remembered his father abruptly dropping his medical practice and moving his large family to a small farm, an unsettling transition for a then 12-year-old boy. He also shared some of the frustrations that come with the territory for an urban school district superintendent who recognizes the vitality of the arts in a holistic education during lean budgetary times.

“It’s a challenge to help the broader community understand that arts aren’t extra, they’re fundamental,” said the man who initials his emails TA, and embraces that challenge.

Cox is impressed with what he’s seen in his visits to DMPS.

“Last year our time in Des Moines was inspirational,” he said. “The work we see going on here in terms of the Equity and Empowerment Lens (a quality improvement tool to improve planning, decision-making, and resource allocation towards racially equitable policy and programming) is something to aspire to.”

Instead of small talk, there was talk about big ideas and bigger budgets. Lest anyone imagine the VIPs are just mailing in their performances for their student audiences, their enthusiasm at school sites and input during the roundtable made clear that their involvement with Turnaround Arts reflects a personal investment, not a career opportunity arranged by an agent.

Thursday’s scheduled student council podcast at Cattell might not be exactly what John Lloyd Young dreamed of when he was in grade school, at least not as much as the Tony he won for Jersey Boys, but he totally gets that it might inspire some dreams for kids he’ll meet tomorrow.

He’d love to play a part in them.

Photos of a Big Day for Turnaround Arts
A Big Day for Turnaround Arts

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