Performing Up to Their Potential

When James Barbagallo finished his concert at the Thirty-Second Street/U.S.C. School for the visual and performing arts, the bronze medalist in the 1982 Tchaikovsky piano competition asked if any of the students would play for him.

Hesitantly, Maisha Brown, 11, crossed the school cafetorium to the grand piano in the center of the floor. Her right running shoe tapping loudly on the floor, she pounded out the pulsating theme from "The Pink Panther."

Cheers, Then Groans

Then Elisabeth Powell, 12, looking fearful, walked to the piano and sat on the edge of the bench. The hood of her turquoise sweat shirt hanging down her back and her running shoe bouncing on and off the right pedal, she moved nimbly up the scales playing the bouncy second movement of a sonatina by Danish composer Friedrich Kuhlau.

The audience of 100 sixth-graders seated around the piano applauded and shrieked enthusiastically, and then groaned when the youngster declined to play another number.

About 1,000 students from kindergarten through ninth grade attend the school just west of the Shrine Auditorium and across the street from the University of Southern California. It is one of five magnet schools in the city for students in the visual and peforming arts.

Selected at random from applicants throughout the city, the students ride buses from as far as Chatsworth, Venice, San Pedro and Bell to reach a school that lacks an auditorium, stresses traditional course work and allows students to begin taking performance classes only in the fifth grade.

Part of Integration Program

Creators of the school, established in 1978 as part of the Board of Education's program for voluntary integration, intended that traditional education should be the main goal, and most of the students do not enter the performing arts as a career.

Nevertheless, pupils display their artistry daily. Invited by Robynne Royster, 11, to hear the school orchestra rehearse following his concert, Barbagallo, one of about eight professional performers to visit the school this year, left the cafetorium to watch a variety of youngsters preparing for performances.

On a wooden stage set up by students beside a bungalow, fourth-grader Myshia Moten appeared older than her nine years. She wore yellow combs in her hair, yellow bracelets on her wrists and a long, ruffled black dress with yellow polka dots.

An intense expression on her face, she gracefully swung her arms and stamped her high heels as she whirled to flamenco music provided by students using a sound system beside the stage.

A few feet away, two students sprawled on the asphalt as a classmate standing on a lunch table photographed them with a movie camera.

The students were making a film called "Attack of the Killer Carrots," a spoof of a movie entitled "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." In this scene, a girl performer finds her friends dead, turns to another actor and says, "I knew vegetables were bad for you."

In a classroom nearby, about 50 junior-high choir members cupped their hands to their ears to hear themselves and sang three-part harmony to "Lullaby of Birdland."

Across the hall in the orchestra room, near posters of Michael Jackson and the Latino pop group Menudo, a sign asked, "How does Bach manage to keep the piece interesting?" and "What kind of instruments do you hear?"

Students play in jazz bands and orchestras, and classes recently celebrated the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth. For the birthday, student musicians played Bach in an assembly, and teachers baked 40 cakes, which were decorated and arranged to spell out:





Although students seem to enjoy their classes, some operate under less-than-optimal conditions, particularly in physical education classes.

There is no gymnasium, and grade-school and junior-high students share a small playing area that has two backstops and four basketball backboards, some of them with bent rims.

The playing area lacks sleeves in the ground to hold volleyball poles, and physical-education teacher Larry Link must tie one pole to a fence and another to a grating on a window.

Link likes to emphasize fitness, but there is no exercise bar on the playground, so students use the top of a gate to do chin-ups.

Grass at a Premium

Nor is there any grass. Link unlocks a gate and takes students to a dry, grassy spot on a nearby mall where they do sit-ups. Until someone sees a dog. Then everyone rushes back into the yard.

Fortunately for the magnet pupils, the mall is used much less by dogs than it is by collegians riding bicycles to USC across the street.

Proximity to campus benefits magnet students, who walk to the California Museum of Science and Industry, the County Museum of Natural History, the Fisher Gallery at the USC School of Fine Arts, and the California Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.

USC also occasionally donates the use of auditoriums to the school and trains student teachers there.

School's Primary Goal

Those factors aid the education in a racially integrated environment, which is the primary goal of the school.

When head counselor Charles Baxter talked to ninth-graders this year, he was surprised at the number who were not entering the performing arts.

"They came here. They got what they needed. And now they were looking even beyond senior high to what kind of profession they wanted to go into," he said.

"I think what happens is that our youngsters, in being able to be in the performing group, develop a sense of 'I'-ness, or who they are. They get a lot of satisfaction so they feel good about themselves. When you perform and you get applause, you know you're good. And you can't help but warm to that."

60% Minority Enrollment

Comfortable students feel little need to denigrate others, Baxter said, so success in performance aids integration.

Because it was established to promote voluntary integration, the school is required to maintain a 60% minority enrollment. The students, 34% Latino, 27% black, 36% white, and 3% Asian and other minorities, seem to get along and, when they are on the grounds, to play in integrated groups.

"I think our integration is probably a greater success than the performing arts," said Greta Pruitt, the new principal of the school, who has worked for 30 years in the Pasadena and Los Angeles school systems.

"For example in the orchestra . . . . It's made up of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, so every time we put youngsters into situations where they must work together, they must learn together. They're doing something cooperatively. They're not just sitting in the same classroom. They're all playing music to the same beat. And I like that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World