Savoy Elementary Students Put the Thrill in 'Thriller'

Dorothy Rowley | 11/14/2012, 8:34 a.m.

Move over, all of you high-stepping, flashy and rap-influenced dancers. When it comes to cutting a smooth groove, a group of students from Savoy Elementary School in Southeast can probably teach a lesson or two.

Although the 105 students who participated are too young to have related to the musical genius of the late Michael Jackson, they were recently the talk of the town, after rendering a live jam performance of the King of Pop's masterpiece "Thriller" that took the nation by storm 30 years ago.

"I think it means a lot to give them another [scope on learning in relation] to what's out here in the world," said project coordinator Carol Foster of the students - who along with their peers at the Anacostia community school - had traditionally been on the lower-achievement end of academics.

"This was a wonderful chance for our students to do something special, and they seemed to understand that the same effort they put into the arts would have to be the same for their academics," Foster said. "But the performance also gave them a chance to use their creativity and see the world in a different way."

During the students' two-minute flash mob performance Thursday, Nov. 8 on an open stage outside of the National Portrait Gallery in downtown D.C., they effortlessly put the "Thrill in Thriller," bringing the 1983 video to life with ghoulish makeup and tattered clothing, while dancing in unison. As curious passersby and other members of their enthralled audience cheered them on, the students were being directed from atop an SUV by art teacher Anthony Jones.

The performance was organized in accordance with a humanities program at Savoy called the "Turnaround Arts Initiative." It ties in with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and Savoy's participation puts it on track for becoming a model of local education reform, as well as ensuring access to vital learning tools and resources that include art supplies and musical instruments.

Much to the chagrin of parents and community leaders in support of principal Patrick Pope's efforts at Hardy Middle School in Northwest, he was reassigned three years ago - in the wake of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's staff reduction and shake-up - to a Central Office post.

While critics reasoned the removal was based on Pope's reluctance to reach out more aggressively to affluent Georgetown and Palisades neighborhood families, in early 2011 he was appointed by current Chancellor Kaya Henderson to lead Savoy. Since that time, Pope has received high marks - particularly in light of significant improvements made in the school's student attendance and test scores.

To that end, Savoy's participation in Turnaround - which will be extended through the next school year - makes it a standout among District public schools, being just one of eight in the nation selected to benefit from the initiative.

"I was very proud and excited for the children and pleased that they had the opportunity for a public performance that brought a lot of good responses," Pope, who is in his 50s, said. "This is the beginning of our second year and we chose the arts as the vehicle for turning the school around and engaging the students to keep them more focused by giving them some positive outlet."

Teachers agree the program not only helps students learn about music theory and its impact on song and dance, but that it also helps them learn the importance of perseverance and being focused.

"When you practice, practice makes [perfect]," said Savoy student Jahsiere Ellis.