Leap of Faith Lands School in New Home

Times Staff Writer

An after-school arts program that was evicted in November from an El Monte church after its pastor complained that teaching dance encouraged drug use and immoral behavior has found a new home.

This week, 35 students began classes at Creative Planet, which has expanded to be a full-time day school with an arts focus, on the campus of First United Methodist Church, also in El Monte.

"We're flying by the seat of our pants," said founder Bill Rugh, "hoping it works."

Rugh, a dancer and actor, founded Creative Planet in mid-2001 with the belief that students well-rounded in the arts develop higher self-esteem. Many students attending the program come from communities where resources for arts education are lacking.

When it opened, the program was given space at Santa Anita Wesleyan Church, where Rugh was a longtime member and his brother and father were on the board.

But last year, Edgar Chacon, a new, more conservative pastor, arrived at the church. Chacon has said that he thought he was protecting the children at the school by banning dance and yoga, another Creative Planet discipline, which he considered a pagan practice.

At Chacon's instigation, the church board voted to close Creative Planet and to fire Rugh from his job at the church's school, where he taught third and fourth grades.

After media coverage drew attention to Creative Planet's plight, First United Methodist Pastor Marguerite Bermann offered to house props, costumes and other supplies for the stranded program.

She also scheduled a meeting with the church board to consider offering the school a permanent home in some empty classrooms and the church's cavernous auditorium nearby. It voted Dec. 29 to allow the program to use its facilities rent-free.

"It's a great program," Bermann said. "It deserves to have somebody take a risk for it."

Rugh said he'd always dreamed of having a full-time school with an arts emphasis. After the Methodist church's vote, he and supporters rallied quickly to organize a viable program. Many of the students and staff transferred from El Monte Christian, the school run by the Wesleyan church.

Rugh's mother, Kathryn, who had been principal of the elementary school and quit her job after church leaders ordered her to discipline her son, is teaching at the new school.

Creative Planet students attend academic classes from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then receive an hour of arts instruction: music, visual arts and other disciplines. (At this school, which is modeled on an arts magnet, dance fulfills the P.E. requirement).

Creative Planet charges $300 a month per child for academic tuition and $5 a class for the after-school arts courses -- but Rugh said many of the students are on full or partial scholarship.

"A lot of teachers and the staff are working for free right now," Rugh said.

Students are spending this week catching the students up on subjects that they missed as a result of the Creative Planet controversy, when many parents kept their children home from school.

Because the school size is still small, there are three main classrooms, for grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8. In each room, brightly colored with a trace of new-paint smell, lessons are by grade level.

On Tuesday, the seventh- and eighth-graders were reviewing Renaissance history.

The Italian Renaissance, Rugh told his students, who at one point marched in picket lines in front of the Wesleyan church, was "the Creative Planet of their day. People were rising up and saying, 'We have the capability of being trained in the arts.'

"What we've gone through over the last six weeks," he reminded them, "is about the fact that you have a right to learn about the arts."

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