Facing low attendance and high drop-out rates, the faculty and staff of Raleigh’s alternative Mary E. Phillips High School are constantly searching for new ways to educate and excite their students. On this night in mid-October, the school auditorium is full of parents and children, who are gathered for a public showcase of African dance, drumming and original dramatic pieces.

What’s unusual about tonight’s program is that it will be performed by students who, up until now, have had few opportunities for self-expression. The show, titled The Rhythm of Life, is the culmination of a four-week curriculum that has succeeded with troubled students where more traditional approaches have failed.

Before the show, teacher Scott Renk greets families and friends at the gymnasium’s entrance, occasionally breaking off to pace around the gym nervously. With good reason: There have been some last-minute problems, the most serious being that the lead actress in the play dropped out of the production that very morning.

Despite the snags, Renk and his students begin to pull their show together. The odds they face tonight are miniscule compared to what many of the students face in surviving the difficult circumstances into which they have been born.

Mary Phillips, located in southeast Raleigh, is a school designed to serve students who are struggling elsewhere in the Wake County school system. The institution offers resources not found in all public schools, such as daytime child care, night classes and low student-to-teacher ratios. “We are here to turn things around for the students,” says Renk, the school’s art teacher and one of the organizers of the grant-supported program, called Healing and Magic of Rhythm. Renk notes that some of the students come from broken homes and the school is their last chance for structure. “I have had students make art for parents in jail,” says Renk.

Given the difficulties faced by Phillips students, which include (but are not limited to) gang violence and teen pregnancy, it may seem old-fashioned to utilize art as a conduit for healing. Yet the students of Mary Phillips are making a strong case for the power of expression. For the past three years the administration at the school has offered its Healing and Magic curriculum of Afrocentric cultural programs that encourage its predominantly black student body to embrace aspects of the African cultural legacy. Thanks to support from the United Arts Council and the North Carolina Arts Council, the school offers four-week blocks of classes on subjects such as art, writing and physical education.

Students selected to participate spend one and a half hours every school day learning a specific mediumart, dance, drumming or writing. Two groups of artists were funded this year to teach at the school: The Healing Force, a community-oriented, Winston-Salem-based group of educators and performers, taught writing, singing and some drumming. Meanwhile, the Shabu family, led by Liberian-born patriarchs Baba and Mama, led classes in dancing, drumming and textile designs.

In particular, the Shabu family teaches the students how African dance moves can be found in contemporary forms. Tracing dance through the Harlem Renaissance to today’s “two-step,” the teachers provide a touchstone of relevance. Connecting American culture to African culture is vital because many of the students initially reject the idea of an African inheritance.

This initial hurdle can be overcome, but getting the students motivated and interested is one of the most demanding tasks the teachers face. “African-American students here at first don’t embrace their African heritage, and don’t want much to do with it. However, after this grant they really embrace it,” Renk says.

In Renk’s art classes, he motivates his students by teaching them about adinkra, the use of symbols in stamping. Each adinkra stamp carries with it a specific meaningfor instance, the “responsibility” stamp is an image of two crocodiles that share a stomach, which implies that what you do to yourself directly affects others. In all, there are 12 symbols representing positive qualities such as perseverance, kindness, integrity and respect, and students adopt traits they wish to strengthen in themselves. Renk has noticed that the crocodile “responsibility” insignia is embraced by pregnant students in his class who appreciate the need to exercise responsibility when sharing their body. “We aim to teach character education, to get these students to think hard about doing good,” he says.

After they have gathered their chosen adinkras, they stamp the images on shirts. It’s a Pop art gesture, and Renk compares it to the branding seen in advertising. “We are visual creatures. We can understand things better if it is put in a visual symbol.”

Jeannine Brown, a 2007 graduate of Mary Phillips, found that the adinkra succeeded as a motivational tool where more traditional ones failed. In the conventional Wake County schools she attended, every classroom had a poster on the wall of positive character traits that was easy to ignore. Working with the adinkra, on the other hand, was more compelling. “It gave me a hands-on approach and it impacted me more than those posters ever did.”

Brown had never had an art class until she transferred to the school from Millbrook High School in Raleigh. She is one of a number of students who have found the special programs to be a life-changing experience; some continue to work outside of the school with the artists and a couple have followed their art education to a university setting. Brown now studies at the Art Institute of Charlotte. She attributes her experiences as the catalyst that pushed her toward college. “[Renk] gave me confidence to explore my interest, the confidence to say, ‘I can do this.’”

Despite the loss of the lead actress, the final performance went on as scheduled. The show featured the aspects of expression covered in the courses: The writers wrote and performed the play, the set was decorated with adinkra symbols, the drummers set the show’s rhythm, and the dancersclad in handmade, adinkra-stamped T-shirts and skirtselicited whoops and cheers with their impassioned steps.

There were technical difficultiesa feedback-prone microphone, for instance, and a few missed lines in the playbut the level of accomplishment was impressive. The achievements were especially remarkable, and deeply moving, when considering that such a level of proficiency was the fruit of a four-week curriculum for the most embattled teens in Wake County.

By the end of the evening, the audience had risen out of their seats and started dancing with the students while the drummers kept the beat. Young children and grandparents alike joined hands with teachers, on this night when brighter futures seemed within reach.