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Program Is a Far Cry From Finger-Painting

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suzanna Guzman remembers clearly her first performance--as a 3-year-old in a Fourth of July parade in El Sereno. “I was the littlest alien.” Last out, she hammed it up, cavorting friskily to the delight of the crowd. Later, she was among students at Farmdale Elementary School in El Sereno bused to the Music Center for real theater. The excursion was part of an outreach program sponsored by the center. Walking into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she recalls, was like entering “the most incredible church. Everyone would whisper. It was so magical.”

She signed up for classes at the center and one day after class sneaked in to see “La Traviata,” hiding in the light booth. “It was Beverly Sills. I stood watching this woman in a dress that was covered with stars. I had no idea it was opera” or what opera was.

Guzman, a mezzo-soprano, could not have dreamed that one day she’d be a principal artist with L.A. Opera, would sing with the Metropolitan Opera, at Carnegie Hall and in opera houses throughout Europe.

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For more than two decades, the Music Center’s education program, founded by Joan Boyett in 1979 post-Proposition 13 and guided by her until her recent retirement, has created and nurtured dreams. The center’s programs, like those of other arts institutions, helped keep kids exposed to the arts even when little was offered in schools.

Taking over for Boyett, former LAUSD board president Mark Slavkin inherits an office that oversees a host of established programs, the largest of which, artists-in-residence, brings mul-ticultural professionals into public and private schools in five Southland counties. The center’s programs, including Music Center on Tour school assemblies in more than 20 languages, are the most comprehensive of some 40 such partnerships between the schools and community arts organizations such as the Getty Center and the Performing Tree.

Slavkin shares Boyett’s commitment to introducing young people from kindergarten on to mind-stretching, authentic arts programs, whether they be taiko dancing or Shakespeare.

It’s a quantum leap from such traditional elementary school endeavors as making “art” from egg cartons, which he dismisses as akin to “teaching literature by having kids read other kids’ scribblings.” And, he added, “there’s more to music education than singing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ at Christmas.”

Today, as the arts start to reclaim their place in classrooms, the Music Center’s commitment continues, with a projected $4.7-million educational budget for fiscal 2002-03. But the mission has changed somewhat.

Said Slavkin: “It’s no longer a question of ‘If it weren’t for us, kids would have no arts education,”’ but, rather, how the Music Center is “uniquely well positioned to help guide and leverage change” as programs rebuild.

Among challenges, he cites the readiness factor--a paucity of teachers with arts education--and school administrators who still are “very comfortable” without arts or have an “anything is better than nothing” mind-set.

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True, said Boyett, but “schools’ artistic judgment has been greatly increased” by exposure to real artists. “In the early days schools would have been very happy to have somebody who blew balloons into animal shapes.”

As the arts fight for parity with the three Rs, Boyett finds cause for optimism. She remembers when a school arts program--not atypically--consisted of “four San Fernando Valley housewives doing the hula.”

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