After more than 30 years, Leslie Shepard says goodbye to the Baltimore School for the Arts

The boy in the black leotard was throwing yet another temper tantrum.

Seventeen-year-old Bilal Smith had his back to his dance instructor at the Baltimore School for the Arts. As she demonstrated a movement sequence to the class, Bilal bent from the waist, ran his hands up and down his legs and began to rhythmically twitch his buttocks: Left. Right. Left, right, left.

The room became silent. "I was just stretching," Bilal said.

"You can just leave," the teacher replied.

The door clicked shut behind the teen's retreating back — and the sound registered on Leslie Shepard, the school's director, with the sharp precision of a slap.

In the 32 years that Shepard has spent at the school, including 11 as its head, "I don't think I've ever tried so hard with any student," she said.

But she was running out of creative options. When she talked with her staff about Bilal — as she did at least weekly — Shepard's eyes drifted to the side as though searching for a more reassuring sight.

"This year is so critical for him," she said. "He's writing his future right now."

In contrast, Shepard's school calendar was rapidly reaching its last page. The 2010-2011 academic year — her last with the school — posed some of the most formidable challenges of her career, including teacher layoffs and student protests. But it also brought some of the most enduring joys.

"This was the most difficult year I've ever been through," Shepard said. "But even on the worst days, I would get so inspired watching these kids blossom that my heart was bursting when I got home."

Shepard's world has been the school that she's helped shape since 1978, and which boasts such well-known graduates as actress Jada Pinkett Smith, rapper Tupac Shakur and fashion designerChristian Siriano.

On Friday, Shepard's whole world changed.

Making things work

The director strode into the dance studio.

The atmosphere was subdued. Some teens stood at the barre with arms clasped; others sat with their legs in V's, the bottoms of their soft pink shoes scuffed and dirty.

On Sept. 8, Shepard informed school board officials that she would retire at the end of the year. Since then, the staff had picked up a muted worry underlying the students' everyday chatter about homework, auditions and recitals. So the director (a term that Shepard prefers to "principal" because of its associations with performing) visited each arts class — eight in all — to explain her decision.

One girl asked Shepard why she was leaving.

"How old are you?" Shepard inquired.

"Sixteen," the girl replied.

"Well, I've been at this school twice as long as you've been alive," Shepard said.

In fact, she's been involved since the institution existed only on paper. Shepard was a member of the task force set up by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to plan a pre-professional high school for singers, actors, dancers, musicians and visual artists. And for much of the three decades that followed, she worked virtually nonstop.

Shepard came in on Saturdays to check on the roughly 700 elementary school pupils enrolled in TWIGS, a series of free arts classes. If she wasn't attending a school performance on a weekend night, she might be escorting a potential donor to an art gallery opening featuring a school alumnus.

Asked about the last time she took a sick day, Shepard thought hard for several seconds. "I might have had the flu one year," she said.

Shepard retains the compact figure of the dancer she once was. She wears dangly jewelry in strong, abstract shapes and is teased about her penchant for stiletto heels.

But though she appears years younger, Shepard is 63 and exhausted. (She'd initially planned on retiring in June 2009, at the end of her 30th year. But when two veteran administrators departed that spring, she decided to cushion the jolt to the school by postponing her exit.)

Besides, she was living so much through her work that she was in danger of starving the part of herself that exists independently from the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"You have to devote yourself 150 percent to this job to do it right," she said. "I'm ready to not have the all-encompassing, enormous responsibility of being the head of the school 24/7. I take that responsibility mighty seriously. I wake up at night thinking, 'What do I have to accomplish tomorrow? What do I have to fix?'"

Everyone at the school knows that Shepard has a thing for Jiminy Cricket. A framed photo of the cartoon character signed by Walt Disney hung in her wood-paneled office, and her favorite song is "When You Wish Upon a Star."

That might seem out of character for such a sharp-eyed realist, but there's no denying that Shepard has led a Jiminy Cricket sort of life. She was constantly dashing after yet another boy or girl who was brimming with potential but in danger of wandering astray. During the past three decades, Shepard helped thousands of artistically gifted Baltimore teens into adulthood.

She just wished she knew what would motivate Bilal to buckle down and pass his courses. A hug? A kick in the pants? Anger management counseling?

The teen from an impoverished west-side neighborhood was admitted in 2007 as a freshman to the school's ballet program without ever having danced a step in his life. For the first year, his teachers were thrilled by his natural talent and rapid progress.

"The first time I saw one of the advanced dance classes, it was so beautiful I got chills," he said. "I thought, 'This is what I want to do with my life.'"

When other dance students were taking a break, Bilal would contort his limbs into a stretch in which one knee bumped against his ear. He'd check out dance videos so he could study technique at night and on weekends. His report card held C's.

But the teen couldn't always get the attention he craved. He was disappointed when his mother, who was scrambling to feed five children, couldn't attend school performances. Bilal's father initially disapproved of his son's choice, and for a time they communicated only through a third party.

His sophomore year, Bilal began getting D's and F's. Worse, he didn't seem to be trying.

Occasionally, Bilal ignored his homework. He didn't attend Saturday school or coaching classes, both designed to help struggling students. In math or Spanish, he'd sometimes rest his head on his desk.

When Bilal received his report card in June 2010, at the end of his junior year, he'd failed Algebra II, geometry, physics and Spanish.

For aspiring dancers, the summer before senior year is crucial. The most promising hone their technique while studying with top national troupes. It's not unusual for the experience to lead to a job offer after graduation — or even before.

Bilal was to have spent that July and August with the San Francisco Ballet. Instead, he remained in Baltimore to attend summer school.

"We decided to allow him to repeat his junior year," Shepard said.

"We've let kids redo a grade before, but it's almost always been their freshman year, when they weren't prepared for the demands of this high school. But Bilal has so much potential, we made an exception."

But Bilal felt he was being punished. And when he started his junior year for the second time on Aug. 30, his resentment was palpable.

"When I got my letter saying I would have to repeat the 11th grade, I started to cry," he said. "On the first day of school, I was embarrassed and humiliated and so sad. All my friends were leaving me behind."

But Bilal wasn't Shepard's only concern. She had 374 other students to worry about, each with a compelling story.

When Noah Smith was a freshman, gang members in his west-side neighborhood disapproved of his theater aspirations, taunting him daily for a year as he walked to school. Fortunately, Noah, now 17, got his growth spurt and developed an intimidating physical presence. The harassment stopped.

Robert Pate, 17, has a soaring tenor that he yearns to develop at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he's been accepted. But Robert, who lives in Waverly, feared he'd never scrape together the nearly $50,000 a year for tuition and room and board. By graduation, Robert had received more then $26,000 in scholarships, planned a benefit concert and hoped to take out loans for the rest.

DeAndre Holley was carrying a man's load. The 18-year-old spent a long day sculpting, painting and studying world history, then went home to Baltimore's south side to cook dinner for his five sisters and brothers, take out the trash and help them with homework. Not only did DeAndre graduate, he won a scholarship that will pay his tuition at a community college with a strong visual arts program.

"Every day, I look into the faces of our beautiful students," Shepard said. "They are all so remarkable in different ways."

Though the students were Shepard's priority, the well-being of her staff ranked high. Instructors such as costume designer Norah Worthington and social studies teacher Trudy Leocadio keep schedules that rival Shepard's. It's the director's job to get the faculty the resources they need — the time, funding and emotional support — to function at top capacity.

That hasn't been easy, even though Maryland, unlike other states, hasn't cut K-12 funding. Nonetheless, the amount allocated to the school by the city's public system has dwindled steadily for several years.

But the School for the Arts has a separate fundraising arm that provides nearly one-third of the cost of educating each student, and Shepard became adept at persuading donors to open their wallets. At Shepard's tribute, opera singer Robert Cantrell sang to the tune of "Old Man River": "Leslie charms them and disarms them, and then she shakes them down."

Asked how Shepard reacted when he turned down her requests, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso laughed long and hard. "I don't say no to Leslie," he said. "My job is saying yes to Leslie. Leslie says no to me."

He once tried to place Shepard in charge of arts education for the entire school system. She declined, saying there was more to accomplish at her high school.

"The Baltimore School for the Arts is the best school in the state," Alonso said. "If I had 100 schools that functioned that well, we'd be the best school system in the world."

It's not surprising then that the school has weathered the recession relatively unscathed.

"So far," Shepard said, "I've been able to figure out a way to make things work."

A life in the arts

Shepard looked forward to her sole annual appearance on stage as a party guest in "The Nutcracker." Though she danced as a child and for several years was part of a local adult modern troupe, it's been a long time since she put on a leotard and tights.

Shepard didn't produce any ballet steps in "The Nutcracker." But the holiday show is the only time that different parts of the Baltimore community share the stage: nondancing adult supporters, high school students and elementary school pupils in TWIGS.

Shepard's turn in the footlights always ended after just a few scenes. That's when her real job began.

The wing of the school's stage seems roughly the size of a shoebox, with no more than 5 feet to an unyielding brick wall. Young ballerinas who exit with an exultant leap into the wings are in danger of breaking their, well, wings.

Shepard positioned herself against the wall, hands out waist-high. Junior Jasmine Watkins, who performed in the chorus, bounded offstage, one leg extended elegantly and perilously before her. Shepard grabbed the girl below the ribs, breaking her fall.

The director could only hope that she'd meet with as soft a landing when she made her own headlong leap.

By the Dec. 15 application deadline, the committee searching for her replacement had received 180 resumes, including one from Germany and two from India. Shepard couldn't change her mind.

Even so, the school has been her social life. Her tight group of female friends are members of the faculty or the board of directors.

And the school has been her family. Shepard is twice-divorced, and her two brothers live out of state. Though she loves dogs, she doesn't have a pet because she feels she's too busy to give an animal the attention it deserves. While Shepard has no children of her own, her face lights up every time a kid, even a misbehaving one, walks into her office. She was always throwing an arm around a teen in tears, adjusting another's performance tiara, or taking the face of one of the TWIGS boys between her hands and playfully patting his cheeks.

"Getting married and having kids wasn't my focus when I was growing up," she explained. "I just loved the arts."

Dance department chairwoman Norma Pera thinks Shepard realized she would have to choose between the all-consuming demands of her job and being a mom. Directing an urban arts high school that admits students based only on talent isn't just about training future actors and musicians. It's about changing society by giving poor youngsters a shot at the brass ring.

"Leslie adores kids," Pera said, "but she understands that children need to be the total focus of their parents' lives. Too many other things are important to her."

Shepard knew she'd have to come up with a Plan B for the next phase of her life. But she couldn't even think about it until July.

"It will be hard to leave here," she said. "It's like leaping off a cliff without a safety net. It's hard to imagine not getting up in the morning and my car knowing automatically where to drive. My social life is tied to the cultural life of this school."

Indeed, an inner circle of eight to 10 faculty members who call themselves "the girls" had formed around Shepard. The friends shop for one another, get pedicures together and buy one another gifts.

Shepard also had trusted male advisers in John Nichols, the dean of admissions, and Christopher Ford, the head of the music department, who joked about having to check their testosterone at the door to her office but said their boss always made them feel valued.

"After every school production, the first email you'd get when you opened your computer in the morning was a thank-you note from Leslie," said theater department chairman Donald Hicken. "If we were in rehearsals and too busy to eat, she'd have noticed and set a sandwich aside for you. I don't know what life is going to be like here without her."

Of course, not everyone on the staff liked Shepard. She could be imperious, defensive and, by her own admission, impatient. When Shepard was girding for battle, she'd flick her hair behind her neck, her eyes would rise slightly, then rapidly fall.

"Leslie is demanding, and she can be moody," said development director Carter Polakoff, who counts Shepard among her closest friends. "If I'm walking past her office and she doesn't acknowledge me, I know not to walk in."

During a recent tribute to Shepard, actor Larry Gilliard, who portrayed drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale on the HBO series "The Wire," recalled a daunting encounter when he was a freshman.

"I was late for a concert and I was coming up the back stairway from the cafeteria to the second floor," he said. "I may have been running. Who was standing there, blocking the doorway, facing me with her hands on her hips and no smile? Leslie. Now, you have to imagine the back lighting that made a halo all around her. And, you have to imagine the wind tunnel blowing her hair. And you have to imagine the Wonder Woman costume. That's the Leslie I know."

By February, Shepard was beginning to suspect that she would soon need all the superpowers at her disposal.

Alonso, struggling to close a $73 million gap in the fiscal 2012 budget, offered early retirement and a buyout to 3,200 veteran teachers. Such an initiative was unprecedented in Baltimore, and it got Shepard's attention. So did subsequent warnings that the situation was dire and would affect every school in the system.

It was hard — no, impossible — for Shepard to plan for budget cuts when it would be months before she had hard numbers. She warned her department heads to brace for hard times.

"I'm usually the most creative budgeter and fundraiser," she said. "That's one of my strengths. "But I'm also a worrier. We've been reading that the schools will have to make wrenching decisions this year between retaining staff and eliminating programs."

Bilal wasn't helping her mood. Again he was failing his classes. He was on academic probation, barred from performing until his grades improved, an odious punishment for a youth seeking a career onstage.

In a twist, Bilal even was failing dance — largely because of his attitude. No matter how many times his teachers told him otherwise, Bilal feared he didn't have what it takes to succeed as a dancer. As a result, he was easily defeated and extremely thin-skinned. When instructors criticized his performance, it felt as though they were confirming his deepest fears.

"Some things that teachers say hurt our feelings and we take them to heart," he said. "We feel like we're being attacked. They don't know that 10 minutes after class is over, we've run into the bathroom and started crying because of something they said."

For his own good, Bilal's dance teachers couldn't coddle him; no professional dance troupe would put up with such behavior.

Throughout the year, Shepard averaged one meeting a month with Bilal individually, with his parents and with staff. She arranged weekly counseling sessions with a school psychologist to provide the teen with techniques for managing his anger and anxiety.

"I'm afraid that Bilal is digging a hole so deep he won't be able to climb out," Shepard said. "That's what worries me the most. He's wasting every opportunity we've given him. It's so sad and disappointing."

As she saw it, there were only two paths he could follow and the outcomes were terrifyingly stark. If he graduated, if he accepted instruction from his teachers, there was an excellent chance he'd be invited to join a professional troupe.

And, if not?

One day after class, Pera took Bilal aside:

"You either shape up and graduate or you're out on the street," she told him. "If you go back to your old high school, they will eat you alive."

The hardest days

In early spring, the whole building celebrated after one of their own was tapped to succeed Shepard. On April 12, the school board named Chris Ford, the cerebral, fiercely dedicated chairman of the music department, as the school's fourth director.

"When Chris came forward as a candidate, I was ecstatic," Shepard said. "No one is more hardworking and passionate about the students and this school than he is."

Unfortunately, the harmony was short-lived. Anyone who phoned the director during the first week of May knew as soon as she answered that something was badly wrong. Shepard tried to speak in her usual conversational peaks and valleys. But she couldn't summon the energy and her voice flatlined.

For the first time in the school's history, she had discussions with three staff members that began, "I have really difficult news to tell you."

On April 25, Shepard learned that her school was facing a $198,000 deficit for the 2011-12 school year. She had four days to make ends meet. "This has been the worst week of my career," she said. "This is the first time that we've ever had a budget in the minuses, and the consequences are devastating."

Shepard had just $29,358 in discretionary funds. Even if she allowed the lease to expire on the school's two photocopiers and brought in toilet paper from home, it would barely dent the deficit. The only option was to lay off full-time faculty members.

"It is dreadful to have to tell people who have done excellent work that they won't be here next year," she said. "It is horrible to look into their faces as they try to take in the news and to know that I've ruined their lives, at least for the moment."

She trimmed one position each from the school's administration, academic faculty and arts staff. The three were eligible to transfer to a vacant, full-time position at another city school.

The School for the Arts is a close-knit community where staff members view themselves as soldiers in a holy war. The highest compliment Shepard could pay an outsider was, "You're one of us now." The layoffs threw the institution into turmoil.

It was the departure of visual arts educator Kim Parr, by all accounts a superb instructor, that generated the strongest emotions. The students view their music and theater teachers as fellow artists. When Shepard stopped by the eight arts classes to explain her decision, she was greeted with hostility.

"When I went to talk to the 11th- and 12th-grade visual artists, it was one of the toughest meetings I've ever had," she said. "Some comments were nasty and some were understanding."

The students feared that, by ousting Parr, the school was abandoning its mission. "We're no longer a school for the arts," one said. "We're a school for administrators."

Shepard also held an emotionally draining meeting with a dozen parents, who left her office no happier than when they entered.

"I don't know why people blame Leslie," Alonso said. "It wasn't her fault that she was given a budget that required sacrifices. The situation became politicized very early on, but I have complete confidence that Leslie made the best decision for the school she could."

At 11 a.m. Friday, May 13, 28 students wearing miniature easels around their necks cut class to picket outside the school and march to City Hall. They carried signs reading "Honk for Education" and "Save the Teachers."

"This is not the way I would have chosen to end my tenure," Shepard said. "Can anyone possibly think that I'd eliminate three full-time positions and lose the services of valuable colleagues if I didn't have to?"

Just when Shepard and the school's staff were feeling as though they'd never smile again, they received a boost from an unexpected source.

On June 5, Shepard stood on stage and shook the hands of 80 beaming graduates. An impressive 99 percent of the class received diplomas, and 94 percent will attend college, including such prestigious places as the Boston Conservatory, the Rhode Island School of Design andPrinceton University.

Bilal watched his former classmates march across the stage. Next year, it could be his turn. At a post-graduation reception, he buttonholed each of his teachers to find out if he'd passed his final exams. He wasn't worried about his grade in U.S. history. Bilal loves history, and thought he'd squeaked through Spanish. But it wasn't until he got a grin from his physics teacher that he knew — against all odds, he'd been promoted to the senior class.

"Each night for the week before exams I'd pray, 'God, please give me the strength to see this through,'" he said.

More good news arrived a few weeks later.

Bilal was accepted to study this summer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The ballet company awarded him a scholarship that would pay full tuition on the condition that he come up with $1,800 for room and board.

On June 21, Shepard fulfilled one final, joyous responsibility. She handed Bilal a letter informing him that the school's foundation has awarded him a $1,200 grant.

For a moment Bilal was silent. Tears came into his eyes. He walked behind Shepard's desk and hugged her so hard he bruised her ribs. He left, then returned minutes later holding out his cell phone. Bilal's mother was on the line.

"I'm so relieved," she told Shepard between sobs. "I didn't know what we were going to do."

It's often easy for grown-ups to identify where they've gone wrong with kids. Far more difficult is pinpointing where they've gone right. Perhaps Bilal began to study harder because it finally sank in that he was in danger of being expelled.

"What am I doing?" he thought. "Are they really going to kick me out?"

Perhaps the weekly counseling sessions helped. Possibly Bilal hit the books because dance is his way out of Baltimore and into a city where he can befriend others like himself.

"There's nothing good happening for me here," he said. "I need to go somewhere else."

But just maybe, Bilal improved because he spent four years at a school where Shepard, Pera and other adults championed him, fought for him and wouldn't let anyone block his progress — not even Bilal himself.

"What makes the school work is this climate of dedication," Hicken said. "And the director sets the tone. I told the kids many times that they would find no fiercer advocate in this building than Leslie Shepard."

Bilal and Shepard are separated by 46 years, but both are in the process of evolving.

Since Shepard is remaining in Baltimore, she'll have to walk a fine line. She'll have to detach emotionally, even though her friends are still employed at the school and accustomed to taking their problems to her. Neither does she want to undermine the new director.

"I'll have to keep my distance," she said.

Like a house, a job can be a place to live, providing shelter and sustenance. Recently, Shepard and her friends have talked about how to find the ideal structure: not so vast that it requires constant maintenance or so small that it's cramped.

"We're all worried about Leslie," TWIGS coordinator Georgia King said. "How does someone go overnight from a job that's too big to nothing? We don't have an answer for that yet."

Shepard has spent three decades helping other people achieve their dreams, and her staff wants her to know that now it's her turn. So they sneaked into her office during the last week of school and attached white paper flowers to every surface from her computer monitor to her stapler.

Shepard appreciates the display of affection and concern but is sure she'll be fine.

"I don't think I'm going to get depressed," she said. "I do think I'll go through a period of grieving. But I will continue to work, most likely in the arts.

"Though I don't know what I'll be doing yet, this is my time for exploration."

Who: Leslie Shepard

Title: Director, Baltimore School for the Arts

Age: 63

Residence: Baltimore

Birthplace: New York

Education: Bachelor's degree in Spanish, 1969, Lake Forest College, Chicago; master's in community planning in social work, 1974, University of Maryland School of Social Work at Baltimore

Note: In an earlier version of this article, information about Leslie Shepard's master's degree was incorrect. The Sun regrets the error.

Awards: Honorary doctorate in fine arts, 2011, Maryland Institute, College of Art

Accomplishments: Spearheaded $30 million building and renovation campaign that in 2008 added 29,000 square feet of classroom and studio space

Personal: Has two younger brothers

The school by the numbers:

Established: 1980

Ranking: Named one of the five best public arts high schools in the U.S. by the Doris Duke and Surdna foundations

Students: 375

Residence: 75% live in Baltimore

Racial makeup: 56% black; 36% white; 4% Asian; 3% Hispanic; 1% other

Gender: 60% female; 40% male

Receiving free lunch: 35.3%

Graduation rate: 99%

Percentage entering college: 89% attending four-year schools, 5% 2-year schools

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