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District’s new arts school an expensive social experiment

With just nine months left before it opens, a new arts high school in downtown Los Angeles still lacks a principal, a staff, a curriculum, a permanent name and a clearly articulated plan for how students will be selected -- critical details for a school that aims to be one of the foremost arts education institutions in the United States.

Central High School No. 9 does have a completed campus, believed to be the second most expensive public high school ever built in the United States. But the very fact that it offers what may be the finest such facilities in the region has fueled a debate over the district’s plan to operate it primarily as a neighborhood school, with fewer than one-quarter of its slots allotted to students citywide.

“This school is built to build the potential that exists within this community, in which we have thousands of very talented students but who lack the social capital and the access to quality arts training,” said Richard Alonzo, a former art teacher who now has authority over the school as a local district superintendent. By “community,” he was referring primarily to the Pico-Union area that lies just west of the school. Alonzo said the school might intentionally discourage the most talented students from outside the surrounding neighborhoods from applying, lest they hog the spotlight.

That has led some people to question whether it’s fair to the wider community -- and if it makes sense from an educational standpoint -- to lavish resources on a flagship arts school that is designed primarily for one section of the city.

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“I just think that L.A. Unified rushes to mediocrity,” said former school board member Caprice Young, who said she thought the goal should be the highest level of performance, regardless of geography. “As a school district, we need to be honoring excellence.”

Few will question whether the campus itself is capable of fostering excellence. At a cost of $232 million, it is one of the crown jewels of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

That’s clear from the moment you pull into the multilevel, 300-car garage. Up a broad flight of stairs, the campus’ main buildings offer three dance studios with sprung maple flooring.

A professional-quality, 950-seat theater. Music classrooms with acoustic tiling and special whiteboards designed for musical notation.

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Floor-to-ceiling windows with motorized blackout shades. Ceiling-mounted projectors in every classroom, allowing teachers to display lessons from computers.

Track lighting in the hallways to illuminate student art. An outdoor atrium for firing Japanese raku pottery. And the school’s centerpiece, a conical library whose dazzling interior swirls upward to an off-center skylight.

All that, and a tower that looms over the 101 Freeway like a severed limb of the Iron Giant.

But while the school is physically ready to open in the fall, key operational details remain undetermined. An executive director was hired but quit, and now the school is interviewing candidates for principal.

“I’m concerned -- I will use that word,” said Ramon C. Cortines, the district’s incoming superintendent. Any school needs at least a year of preparation to open successfully, he said, and a specialty arts school may need more.

Alonzo, who has a passionate vision for the school, remains upbeat and insists that any obstacles will be surmounted.

He said he is close to selecting a principal from among three finalists -- two from the East Coast and one from Southern California. And he has apparently beaten back efforts to wrest the campus from district control and turn it into a charter, a public school largely free of district supervision.

He also believes he has settled the debate over whether the campus will be a neighborhood school or one that attracts the most talented students citywide -- an issue that will define the school’s identity.

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In its early years, at least, 1,200 of the school’s 1,700 seats will be reserved for students from the surrounding neighborhoods, primarily the low-income enclaves of Pico-Union and Chinatown, Alonzo said.

The school, whose name is up for sale for $25 million, has a complicated history that speaks to the ethnic and geographic schisms that run through L.A.'s educational politics. It sits at 450 N. Grand Ave., directly across the freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The site long served as the school district’s headquarters and stands at the northern terminus of the Grand Avenue Project, a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the city’s civic and cultural hub.

The campus was initially conceived as a regular comprehensive high school that would relieve overcrowding at nearby Belmont High, whose partially completed replacement campus was temporarily abandoned because the site was deemed an environmental minefield.

Partly at the urging of philanthropist Eli Broad, the district later decided to turn its old headquarters into a flagship arts school that would anchor Broad’s Grand Avenue Project and embrace the major arts institutions within walking distance: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the L.A. Opera, the Center Theatre Group, the Colburn School of Music and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The cost of the building, paid largely through school construction bonds, soared once the district decided to make it “world class,” district facilities chief Guy Mehula said. Only one other public school in the United States cost more to build -- the Edward Roybal Learning Center. Roybal, about six blocks away, was finished on the abandoned Belmont site after the school board decided it could manage the environmental problems.

The cost of the arts school dwarfs even Roybal if the $190-million cost of moving the district’s headquarters and renovating new offices on Beaudry Avenue is included.

No other part of the city is so richly endowed with new schools. Besides Roybal, there is the nearby Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, and the area will eventually be served by the new schools being built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel -- which, at a projected $570 million for an elementary, middle and high school, will be the costliest yet.

Former school board member David Tokofsky said he believed the overcrowding problem had been solved, leaving no need for the school to focus on the neighborhood. He said the school should reach out for “talent from Banning [High], from Pacoima, from Huntington Park.”

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While on the school board, Tokofsky pushed through a compromise that calls for the arts school to be “open to all District students, beginning with a minimum of 500 students from outside the residential area to grow as space permits.”

But Alonzo and others insist that the district has, in effect, a social obligation to make up for decades of neglect in the areas just west of downtown.

“For 27, almost 30 years, these kids have had a 65% dropout rate, a very limited outlook for their future,” said Maria Casillas, president of a nonprofit foundation that promotes parental involvement in schools and a member of an advisory board established to support the arts high school. “And I don’t know that the cost of these buildings actually pays for the pain and suffering that we have created . . . for these kids.”

Alonzo said students at the school may not have the most experience in the arts, but they will not suffer for it. For instance, usually in the case of a school play, “The part’s going to go to the kid who shows the greatest talent, and that’s not the kind of school that this is going to be,” Alonzo said. “This is really looking at building potential in communities that have been underserved, for kids that really haven’t had the chance.”

While the school might tell star performers that they would likely be happier elsewhere, it won’t refuse to accept them if they really want to attend, he said.

In part, Alonzo frames the argument for a neighborhood school in economic terms. Los Angeles, he said, offers well-paying jobs to people in the arts, not just as artists and performers but in back-office and blue-collar roles. The new school will help give disadvantaged students entree to those jobs, he said.

Another key issue is how the students are selected.

Los Angeles Unified already has performing-arts programs as part of its magnet system, and those schools are required to take students without regard to talent. The L.A. County High School for the Arts, on the other hand, requires auditions or portfolios of student work.

Alonzo said the new school will steer a middle course, with students required to get a recommendation from a teacher and to demonstrate their interest in attending. They will not, however, be required to demonstrate artistic ability, since many students in the neighborhood never had the opportunity to study an art form.

The students from outside the neighborhood -- 350 the first year, then 500 -- will be selected in the same way, he said.

He said all students will be expected to attend Saturday classes or summer classes at the school “to give us the opportunity to talk to the parents, to talk to the child, to find out is this really the place where you should be coming to school.” He said the classes would start next month.

Ariceli Ruano, chief executive of a foundation that helps Latin American children and an active member of the arts school advisory board, said the selection process isn’t clear.

“Is it first-come, first-served?” she asked. “I don’t know. And with the local students, there’s no application that’s been developed that I’ve seen. . . . I don’t really understand, and if I don’t understand, I don’t think it will be very clear to parents.”

Directors of some of the district’s magnet arts programs have been watching the progress on Grand Avenue with interest, perhaps a bit of jealousy, and some frustration.

David Way, head of the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, said there was some “institutional concern” about the new school. Given his druthers, he said, he would rather have seen the district put the resources into its existing arts programs.

Still, he said, “I’ve never worried, lost sleep, over not getting talented kids. There’s three-quarters of a million kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Alan Warhaftig, co-director of the visual arts magnet at Fairfax High, said he wished the new school well but would not be “real happy” if it began siphoning off his best students. But he said the school’s new campus wouldn’t be enough to attract talent, or ensure a successful program.

“It doesn’t matter how large and well-equipped your studios are,” Warhaftig said. “The education of artists is not about training their hands. It’s about training the mind, it’s about training the eye.”

He added: “To build something that has coherence takes time, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an arts program or one that’s focused on international affairs or medicine. . . . As much as people would like to reduce it to a formula, it’s ultimately an art form.”

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mitchell.landsberg@ latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Name for sale

There are no signs saying “Your Name Here,” but there might as well be. For the right price, Los Angeles Unified will sell naming rights to its new arts high school on Grand Avenue.

Such fundraising is common at private schools but rare for a public institution.

It’s all part of an acknowledgment that running a flagship arts high school is far more expensive than running a traditional school, and the additional money will have to come from nontraditional sources.

The school also has plans to rent out its theater, music studios, dance studios, gym and other facilities.

Does that mean we may end up with an ExxonMobil High? In-N-Out Burger High? There’s probably little danger of that.

The district has made clear that it wants philanthropists, not corporations, to bid for the naming rights.

Here are the buildings available for naming, and the amount the school hopes to receive for each:

School: $25 million

Theater: $5 million

Dance program: $2 million

Drama program: $2 million

Music program: $2 million

Administration

building: $2 million

Visual arts building: $2 million

Library: $3 million

Amphitheater: $1 million

Black box theater: $1 million

-- Mitchell Landsberg


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