A visit from a rock star marks real progress at Riverside Central Elementary
Taylor Hawkins, the drummer for Grammy-winning rock band Foo Fighters, made a stop in Rochester on Wednesday. The house was packed, drums rang out throughout the room, and the crowd roared as rock stars dueled off.
For a split second, it didn’t seem like an elementary school.
The performance was part of Riverside Central Elementary School’s designation as a Turnaround Arts school, a program from the Kennedy Center that “empowers high-need, low-performing schools with arts resources… as a strategy to address broad school challenges and turn around struggling schools.”
Part of the program includes designating a mentor for each school — critically acclaimed artists who check in with the students periodically throughout the program. Hawkins, who currently resides in southern California, was assigned to Riverside in 2016 and immediately fell in love with the students and staff.
“What a home Riverside is,” Hawkins said. “It’s great to see the love the staff has for these kids … real love. These folks are magical.”
Hawkins first visited Riverside in November 2016 to kick off the Turnaround Arts program at the school. For this follow-up visit, he was accompanied by Mike Arturi, drummer for The Lovin’ Spoonful and Turnaround Arts mentor for Bethune Elementary School in Minneapolis. The assembly finished with a drum-off of sorts between Hawkins and Arturi — a performance that brought the students in attendance to wild applause.
Riverside principal Matt Ruzek wanted to create a welcoming environment for his students, and he saw Hawkins and Arturi as a perfect example of that mentality.
"We want individuals to share their voice in any way they can that’s positive,” said Ruzek. “You’re supposed to live loud, and these guys play loud instruments, but they’re living loud through their emotions.”
In addition to giving Riverside students an new creative outlet, the Turnaround Arts program has worked to improve student behavior. In the first year of the Turnaround program, suspensions decreased by 43 percent and behavior referrals were down 69 percent. School administrators also said that attendance increased.
“It’s about small successes,” said Ruzek, “little, tiny successes that they can realize that they can learn and do something. Those mount up, and they can become bigger successes.”
For as much as Hawkins and Arturi’s visit impacted the students and staff at Riverside, the same could be said about Ruzek and assistant principal Heidi Howe.
“Matt and Heidi not only did this, but they did it with enthusiasm and belief,” said Arturi. “It wasn’t an obligation to arrange this — they did this with great enthusiasm.”
“[Coming to Riverside] inspires me, and not just as a musician, but as a person,” Hawkins said. “My wife and I looked at each other today and said, ‘We need to do more.’ Anybody in a position of privilege should do more.”
As serious as the task is, and as real as the results are, the main goal of the music is to make people happy. For Hawkins, the personality of the self-described “little amazing energy balls” at Riverside was infectious.
“I had fun today,” Hawkins said. “My heart had fun.”
Isaac Jahns is a 2015 graduate of Mayo High School and a current journalism student at the University of Missouri. His main passions are writing music and telling people’s stories. Follow Isaac on Twitter.