Hard to Draw Talent : Rave Debut Sours for Arts School

Times Education Writer

Every weekday morning for the last two years, 16-year-old Christy Barris has followed a grueling routine: She rolls out of bed before 6, rushes out the door of her Long Beach home and catches an express bus at 6:15 to downtown Los Angeles.

Nearly an hour later, she hops off at a downtown corner and transfers to a bus that takes her to the Cal State Los Angeles campus. By 7:30, she is winding her way across the sprawling college campus to the classrooms occupied by the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

It's a lot to go through to get to school, especially considering Barris could go to her neighborhood high school instead. But Barris, who is passionate about painting, drawing and film, says the county arts school is "definitely worth all the problems" of getting there.

Range of Courses Offered

No other public high school in Los Angeles offers such a range of arts courses, which include advanced placement music theory, computer graphics, ceramics sculpture, fashion, cinema, jazz improvisation, print-making, mural painting, theater, and several levels of art history, three-dimensional design and "ear training"--all in addition to a comprehensive academic curriculum. Its graduates are recruited by prestigious arts institutions, from the Julliard School in New York to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

Although a C average is the minimum academic requirement for admission, the 4-year-old county school, which graduated its third class Friday, has racked up an impressive record. It has scored as well as or better on state achievement tests than such highly rated high schools as Beverly Hills and San Marino and has produced a Presidential Scholar, the nation's highest honor for high school seniors, in each of the last three years.

Yet the school, conceived as Los Angeles' answer to the celebrated music and arts academies in the New York City school system, has been under-whelmed with applications this year, and its struggles illustrate the peculiar difficulties facing specialized high schools in Los Angeles and other parts of the country.

Cater to Special Interests

In the months before the county arts school opened in late 1985, more than 700 applications poured in from aspiring dancers, musicians, painters, writers and actors hungry for a learning environment that would cater to their special interests.

This year, despite numerous deadline extensions and public relations tactics that included a press conference with entertainer Henry Winkler, only 220 students have applied for the 250 openings available in the fall.

Principal James Cusack blames the unwillingness of some school districts to lose talented students and the accompanying state money based on average daily attendance--factors that also threaten plans for a countywide mathematics and science high school proposed by California State University at its Dominguez Hills campus.

Low name recognition, urban sprawl, competition from magnet schools and transportation problems also inhibit the school's recruitment.

The school's struggles come at a time of rising interest among many parents and educators in special high schools, which for the most part have successfully fought off charges of elitism common throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the schools are viewed as one answer to the nation's education woes, providing intensive instruction in areas that budget cuts and shifting priorities have reduced, watered down or eliminated from the standard fare of regular high schools.

They are similar to magnet schools in that they focus on specific subject areas or teaching methods and provide students and parents with greater choice. But unlike magnet schools, which were originally established to promote racial integration, they set entrance requirements that may be quite rigorous.

Specialty Schools

Some special high schools are operated by and serve a single district, such as the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City's five prized specialty schools. Others, such as the Los Angeles County arts high, which is operated by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, draw students from many districts.

Recently, the trend nationally has been toward creating state-operated residential schools. The 9-year-old North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., which for the last four years has produced more National Merit Scholarship semifinalists than any other high school in the nation, has spawned imitators in Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina.

California has 27 special high schools, most of which have opened since the passage of a 1983 school reform bill that provided seed money for schools that offer advanced training and instruction in specific areas. They include nine arts schools, 11 technology schools and two farm schools, such as the 100-student Anderson Valley Agriculture Institute in Boonville.

In the planning stages are an arts conservatory at El Camino College to serve high school students in six South Bay districts and the mathematics and science school proposed by CSU and co-sponsored by the Long Beach Unified School District.

The notion of special high schools still strikes a sore spot for some educators. Despite assurances from CSU officials that the proposed math and science school will not accept more than two or three students from any single district, the Compton Unified School District's superintendent and board have strongly opposed the project. Their chief complaint is that the school will drain off its best students--a prospect Compton can ill afford in light of its low academic standing and declining high school enrollment.

"We always talk about building our inner-city schools, but we can't build them if you take our brightest and best away," Compton Supt. Ted Kimbrough said recently.

Daily Routine

The county arts school has 400 students in grades 10 through 12. They take their regular academic courses from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., break for a 45-minute lunch period, then go back for three hours of instruction in the art form for which they auditioned. Instructors include some well-known artists, such as Los Angeles muralist Kent Twitchell.

Faculty and students alike spurn descriptions of the school as the " 'Fame' of the West," a reference to the movie and television show that were inspired by New York's art and music high schools. "We don't dance on the table-tops," one student said.

But they do sing its praises. Teachers, especially those in the arts classes, take heart in a school that treats the arts as more than a frill--which in California, they say, was one of the chief harms of Proposition 13, the voter-approved initiative that restricted school districts' ability to raise revenues from local sources.

Positive Attitude

Students say it is invigorating to attend a school where their creativity isn't considered weird. "Here, the stars and the outcasts are all mixed together," said theater major Susan Hinkebein, 17, of West Covina. Others say that because they choose to be there, they have more positive attitudes about school. "Here, you are accepted if you succeed," said Kimberly Robinson, 16, of Ladera Heights, who also is majoring in drama. "I feel encouraged to work harder."

Currently, 42 of the county's 82 school districts send students to the school. Aside from the minimum C average, students who apply must submit two letters of recommendation, including a letter from the sending school. Auditions or portfolios are also required.

Students must provide their own transportation to the school, which students say is a major irritant. It is not uncommon for students to spend 90 minutes or more each way going to and from school. Some parents are unable to drive their children to the school but are uncomfortable leaving them at the mercy of public transportation schedules. Many students are unwilling to put up with the hassle. According to a school survey, of the 50 students who left the school last year, three-quarters cited transportation problems as the reason.

Said Los Angeles County Schools Supt. Stuart Gothold: "That is seriously hampering our recruitment."

Another major problem facing the school is money, Gothold said.

Other special high schools are supported almost entirely by state funds and at a higher level than in California. For example, North Carolina's special math and science school receives $11,000 per student annually in state support. The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, located in a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago, receives $9,600 a year per student to cover classroom expenses and an additional $8,400 for room and board and other services unrelated to instruction.

The Los Angeles County school receives $3,250 a year per student from the state, which only covers the costs of the academic program. The school pays the additional expense of its arts instruction through private donations and grants, which bring in about $760,000 a year. So far, the county has been able to cover those costs until the school raises the private money to pay it back, but Gothold said the county may not be able to afford to continue to do so.

'Really a Struggle'

"We have the same revenue limit as a regular, six-period high school--and we're running eight periods a day," Gothold said. "We're at a big disadvantage. It's really a struggle."

The other big stumbling block, county school officials say, is persuading other schools to give up talented students.

"That's a symptom of our industry," said Guilbert Hentschke, dean of the USC School of Education. "It's a natural instinct to not want to let your good students go."

Said Cusack: "We hear things like brain drain. It's a very great problem. That's why this program (the county arts school) is practically a miracle."

The school does most of its recruiting among ninth-graders in junior high schools, which tend to be more cooperative because their students are graduating and leaving the school anyway, Cusack said. "We go to senior highs when we're invited, but we don't get too many invitations."

At the North Carolina school, which receives 700 applications each year to fill 250 openings, "we had some of that (resistance from sending schools) at first, but very little recently," Director Charles Eilber said. The reason may be found in the school's decision to offer teacher workshops and to lend equipment to schools throughout the state, which has helped compensate schools for giving up some of their best pupils, Eilber said.

James Berk, formerly the band director at Carson High School and now the assistant principal of the Hamilton High School Music Academy, a magnet program operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledged that "there are always some teachers who are a little bit insecure about sending kids out" to rival programs.

But he said he did not believe that most teachers are selfish about exposing their students to better opportunities. "In my experience, the strong teachers never had a problem saying, 'My program cannot meet your needs but this other one can.' At Carson, I sent two or three students to apply (to the county school), including my strongest bass player. I didn't want to hold them hostage," Berk said.

Nonetheless, teachers at the county arts school say students have appeared at auditions apologizing for not having a recommendation letter because they said their teacher at their home school was unwilling to write one. Some students say they were openly discouraged from applying.

"My teacher told me horror stories about this school," theater major Kimberly Robinson said. "She said it's not going to be there much longer, so why go there? I love it here."

Cusack told of receiving a letter recently from the band director of a high school in Lakewood who complained that the county school had accepted a student who had "low ability."

"I did some checking and found that student had a 4.0 grade average with A's in jazz band," Cusack said, chuckling in amusement. "But he didn't ask that music teacher for a letter of recommendation. Instead, he went to his principal and his counselor. He came in here as a vocal student. It turns out he is an outstanding student."

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