Arts Academy a Hit, Draws Student Crowd

Times Staff Writer

When the Academy of Performing and Visual Arts announced the beginning of classes last year, Executive Director Jack Plimpton expected "maybe 200 or 300 applications."

Instead, applications from 1,100 budding high school dancers, singers, actors, dramaturgists, painters and film makers poured in; 515 were admitted. Plimpton could not have been happier with the response.

"It showed that young people are desperately hungry for the arts to give some balance to their life," said the former high school principal who began to pursue the concept of the academy seven years ago.

The academy, based in Westwood, is operated by a consortium of 41 county school districts that contribute planning assistance and classroom space. The classes meet at 13 sites, mostly high school campuses, scattered throughout Los Angeles County, including Glendale High School.

Courses in drama, music, dance, television and film production and screen writing are offered free on Saturday mornings from October to May.

The instructors are professionals in each field. Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actor Sidney Poitier and comedian Sid Caesar were guest lecturers last year.

Larron Tate of Van Nuys High School said he enjoyed learning acting from a "real actor," an experience that his school does not offer.

"In regular school," said Tate, who won a part in a television commercial for athletic shoes last year, "when they teach you acting, it's different. It's not by a professional. My teachers (at the academy) let me go free, from the bottom of my heart, and it came off so well. . . . It was just magnificent."

The program was founded by Plimpton, formerly a high school principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District; Marie Plakos, assistant to the superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, and Linda Gibboney, director of UCLA Extension. The three began forming the concept of the academy when they saw how cutbacks resulting from Proposition 13, the constitutional amendment passed in 1978 limiting property taxes, were affecting school arts programs.

"Arts courses were virtually nonexistent after Proposition 13," Plakos said.

Search for Funds

Two years ago, the educators decided to seek state funding for a program that would help fill the gap yet not compete with the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, which was also being planned and will open in September.

They won a $500,000 grant from the California Department of Education, part of a $2-million fund for specialized high school programs authorized by the 1983 school reform and financing law.

However, the academy's start-up money has run out, and the school needs to find a stable source of financing.

Because of its structure, the academy cannot rely on funding through the normal state channels open to full-time comprehensive high schools. Public schools, including the new county arts high school, receive the bulk of their funding from the state through calculations based on average daily attendance. The academy does not qualify for that funding because it operates after school hours and only on weekends.

To address the problem, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) has authored a measure that would provide $450,000 to cover most of the academy's operating expenses during the 1985-86 school year. It also asks the Legislature to earmark a full year's funding of $900,000 in the 1986-87 budget.

The bill was approved by a 25-6 vote in the Senate in July and is expected to pass the Assembly later this month. However, it faces a tough opponent: the governor.

Bill Cunningham, Gov. Deukmejian's adviser on education issues, said the governor supports specialized programs such as the academy but does not want to spend more than the $2 million already provided in the school reform law. "There is a limited amount of money, not just for education," Cunningham said, "but for everything."

Cuts Possible

Without the special state funding, Plimpton said, the academy would be forced to pare down this year's enrollment from a projected 800 to 400 at most.

"The attitude is that this is a frill," Plimpton said. "But I think the arts are very important in the development of young people."

The academy is seeking financing at a time when support for arts education appears to be mounting. The county high school, five years in the making, will be launched on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, with the aid of a $325,000 start-up grant from the same school reform fund that financed the academy. In addition, a proposal to create a state summer school of the arts is making its way through the Legislature.

A bill authored by state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) would appropriate $1.1 million over three years to establish a four- to six-week summer arts camp for talented high school students similar to programs already in effect in North Carolina and New York. The proposal is supported by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, actor Henry Winkler and MGM-UA Entertainment Co. Chairman Frank Rothman.

Plimpton said he welcomes the other programs. But he is not convinced that public funding of arts education will increase substantially in the years to come. In his view, the situation has improved only slightly since the passage of Proposition 13. To cut costs, he said, school administrators began eliminating classes in music appreciation, choir, drama and writing. Many schools also scrapped special holiday programs.

"The first thing that administrators cut was the arts," Plimpton said. "They don't cut sports because, if they did, they would have rebellion in the trenches. The community goes up in arms if sports are cut. But when administrators cut the arts . . . there was never any outcry. As a principal, I found it easier to cut the arts, although I felt terrible about it."

Some Programs Restored

Arts programs in some schools have been restored, Plimpton said. But he added that in many parts of the county, particularly inner-city areas, the courses have not reappeared. Moreover, high schools have been prevented from restoring arts classes because they have had to add other courses needed to satisfy increased graduation requirements imposed by the state Department of Education and the University of California.

"There are not enough periods left in the school day for students to take arts," said Plakos, the Norwalk-La Mirada school administrator who helped found the academy. Plakos said the academy is uniquely suited to accommodate these students, especially the college-bound, who otherwise would have no opportunity to study the arts. And, she said, it benefits school districts that cannot afford to offer an extensive arts curriculum on their own.

The academy has formed a foundation to raise funds from private donors, such as corporations. But, according to Plimpton, the private sector's contributions to arts programs also have diminished over the last several years. He expects the foundation to generate no more than about $60,000 this year.

To help the academy along, actress Jean Stapleton, a member of the academy's advisory board, has volunteered to give a $150-a-ticket benefit performance of a one-woman show, called "The Italian Person," at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in the spring. In October, producer Tony Bill plans to host a $100-a-person benefit breakfast at 72 Market, the Venice restaurant he owns.

Although no conflicts have yet arisen, the academy may soon be competing with the county arts high school, which also will be seeking private-sector money. Charles Stewart, director of the arts high school, said he "would be very happy" to raise $250,000 this year.

Small School

But Plimpton said he does not think conflicts will be a problem, largely because the high school will remain small, with no more than 500 students, and will be mostly state-financed.

He is not concerned about competing for students, either. The high school and the academy, he said, have different approaches that will appeal to different groups of students.

"We're kind of the farm team. The purpose of our program is to introduce kids to the arts," Plimpton said, while the high school is geared to the advanced student ready for a full-time commitment.

In addition to Glendale High School, the academy courses are offered at Excelsior High School and Falcon Cable Television in Norwalk, University High School in West Los Angeles, Plaza de la Raza in East Los Angeles, Montebello High School, Los Angeles High School, Beverly Hills High School, Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance, Inner City Cultural Center, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of African American Art and UCLA. All courses are available at each campus, and class size is limited to 20.

Any 9th- to 12th-grade student with at least a C average is eligible for admission but must be recommended by his school. The deadline for applying this year is Sept. 26, with classes beginning Oct. 5.

Although some complained that that they had teachers who were poorly organized or classmates who did not take the work seriously enough, for the most part academy students interviewed by The Times gave the program glowing reviews.

"Some kids didn't like getting up early on Saturday and came in late," said Ken Mootz, a Warren High School student who studied screen writing at the Academy's Norwalk campus. But he found the overall experience so satisfying that "it made me want to be a screen writer," he said.

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