Elementary theme school program maintains level of excellence

At one DeKalb County School District (DCSD) elementary school, it’s possible to see history brought to life through song, dance, and costume. At the same school, as part of the same program, a culture’s pop icons, modern traditions, and general essence combines for one of the best shows each school year.

Narvie J. Harris Elementary School hosted its most recent Black History Month program February 22-23, 2019, demonstrating a standard of excellence for the 20th consecutive year. On both dates, school staff, parents, and community members filled the Narvie Harris cafeteria to capacity for evenings filled with performance and celebration.

Narvie’s Black History Program—which includes approximately 400 students—begins in ancient Africa, works its way through ancient Egypt, covers prominent ages in music, tackles difficult topics permeating throughout American culture, recognizes music icons such as Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tina Turner, and culminates in a full chorus performance.

Groups of 20 to 30 students performed choreographed songs and dances in accordance with each theme. It was not uncommon to see an entire grade level perform extravagantly for the age of jazz or the soulful ‘70s.

narvie students perform steps in greek attireA main staple and highlight of the show includes step routines from prominent African-American fraternities and sororities such as Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, and more.

Students from every grade level—separated into groups of three or four students—performed a choreographed step routine to honor the fraternities and sororities as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities overall.

During routines, audience members could be heard cheering students on in camaraderie and to signify they are a part of the fraternity or sorority being celebrated on stage.

General music teacher and chorus director, Marvin Strong, has been head of Narvie J. Harris’s Black History Program since 1999. According to Strong, the program has a reputation of holding a high standard, and though the show changes each year, the standard of excellence is always prevalent.

“It’s a different show every year, but I keep some things because the audience looks forward to it and because the children enjoy it,” said Strong. “I try to do a timeline of events in Black History from ancient times to present day. I also try to bring to the forefront things that aren’t typically known as part of Black History or covered in class. I just want to bring history to life with students and give them a chance to express themselves.”

Though the program ran for more than two hours, Strong states he had less than one month to rehearse and complete the program. This includes choreography, costume design, set design, and rehearsals—the last of which occurred for approximately 30 minutes twice per week.

Strong says the students often make it easy for him.

“A lot of students look forward to the program,” Strong said. “They work hard, they get with each other outside of class and practice among themselves. I see certain things in students and know they can do certain things without my help. I pray on it every year, and it has not failed me yet. It’s a blessing.”

Staff and parental support has also been a key factor in assuring the program’s success each year. Strong said parents know they will get a quality program each year and respect what he requires from students.

For him, the payoff is seeing students come to life through art. He doesn’t mind “going overboard” with costumes and set design as long as each student feels like a star. This is why students are afforded elaborate costumes, and a transformed

“Students really enjoy themselves and feel good about the end product,” Strong said. “Seeing the parents happy, the teachers happy, me happy—they really feel like they made something special happen. That’s my whole goal—to make them feel like they’ve accomplished something and feel good about how they performed. To see where the children start—not being able to do something—and then working with them and seeing what they can do, it’s very touching.”

It’s not uncommon for Strong to hear back from past students about how participating in the program deeply affected them. Numerous principals often consult Strong on training music teachers to develop similar programs.

The secret, he says, comes from within.

“If a teacher’s heart is not in what they’re doing, they will not be successful in what they’re attempting to accomplish,” said Strong. “If a teacher does not want to put in the time or the energy into something, they will not reap the rewards. I advise them to find a niche, a passion, and just go from there. I pour myself into whatever I do. The way I was raised, you always put your best foot forward. If my name is on it, I want it to shine—no matter what I do, be it Black History or Christmas.”

students performing dance on stageLeaders at Narvie J. Harris Elementary state the program is another vehicle to success for students. Being a traditional theme school, Narvie helps develop talent while remaining globally conscious through a teacher-parent partnership.

“We are so excited about the great experiences afforded to our students through our Black History Program,” said Narvie J. Harris Principal Dr. Lisa Watkins. “Being involved in a production of this magnitude helps students to build self-esteem and develop the whole child, which translates back into their success in the classroom. We are so very proud of the work that Mr. Strong does with our students, not only developing performing arts skills but grooming our students to become confident leaders.”

Region 3 Superintendent Dr. Sean Tartt echoed Dr. Watkins’ sentiments. Dr. Tartt is also a former Narvie J. Harris principal, and he’s sure to never miss a performance in February.

“This was an amazing experience for all who were in attendance!” Dr. Tartt said. “Everything was absolutely stellar and I appreciate the level of commitment from the Narvie J. Harris Administration, Director Mr. Marvin Strong, and the staff. Keep up the great work.”