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New arts schools are a study in contrasts

One occupies $232 million worth of serious architecture on a promontory overlooking downtown Los Angeles. The other rents cramped space in a South L.A. church.

One has an address that shouts prestige, with neighbors that include the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral and the Music Center. The other is across the street from an apartment building for the recently homeless.

Two new high schools for the arts debuted this week -- a rare enough feat in a down economy. Despite the vast differences in their circumstances, it may be too early to say which of the two has the most potential to nurture the next generation of artists and performers.

The Los Angeles Unified school at 450 N. Grand Ave., perched across the 101 Freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, was years in the making and is housed on one of the most expensive and widely praised campuses in the nation. Yet it is only now shaking off more than a year of controversy and false starts in its launch to become the flagship of the district. The Fernando Pullum Performing Arts High School at 51st Street and Broadway may have the feel of something hastily thrown together out of spare parts, but it is led by one of the city’s most respected music educators and has the support of such big-name artists as Kenny Burrell, Jackson Browne, Bill Cosby and Don Cheadle.

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Adding a twist to the relationship between these two fledgling schools is this: Fernando Pullum, a charter school run by the Inner City Education Foundation (and named after the music teacher who heads the foundation’s arts program), doesn’t plan to stay in its rented quarters for long. It has its sights on an eventual takeover of 450 N. Grand.

“When our performing arts school is doing one amazing thing after another . . . . people will say, ‘Why is this school in a small church on 51st and Broadway instead of at 450 N. Grand?’ ” said Mike Piscal, chief executive of Inner City schools.

Charter takeovers are not unheard of -- in the last year, two L.A. Unified high schools have converted to charter status, under which they are independently managed and freed from day-to-day oversight by the district. But Piscal will get no encouragement from L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

“I don’t think so,” Cortines said Wednesday when asked if he could envision a charter takeover of the district’s crown jewel. “It bothers me that people are looking at our new schools and sort of salivating. I don’t see them looking at the Manual Arts and the Muirs and the sJefferson and the Fremonts” -- a list of some of the district’s oldest, lowest-performing schools.

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However the competition plays out, both arts schools opened in a burst of optimism and magnanimity. They were among a host of new schools opening in Los Angeles this fall, both charters and traditional public schools. Among them were two new elementary schools at the Mid-Wilshire site once occupied by the Ambassador Hotel, the first of several schools planned for the property.

There was an almost giddy feeling Wednesday morning as students streamed onto the Grand Avenue arts campus for their first day of school.

“We’re very excited,” said a beaming Rex Patton, executive director of the school, still known only as Central High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts.

The downtown school, on the site of the former school district headquarters, had a difficult birth, with years of debate over who would attend and how the students would be selected, and nearly a year of recruiting difficulties before an administration team was put in place in May. All that was set aside as students and parents roamed the campus, poring over schedules and looking for unfamiliar classrooms.

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“It’s beautiful,” marveled Magali Arriaza, who was dropping her ninth-grade daughter at the gate. “Beautiful.”

“We’ve waited a long time for a school like this,” added another mother, Judith Martinez, who drove her son, Eric Marquez, from East Los Angeles, where his neighborhood school is Roosevelt High. She said he is a singer and dancer who previously attended Millikan Middle School’s performing arts magnet in Sherman Oaks. “This area hasn’t had any kind of school for kids interested in the arts,” she said.

The school had enrolled 1,279 students in grades 9, 10 and 11 as of Monday, Principal Suzanne Blake said (there will be no senior class until next year). In the ninth grade, she said, the school hit its targeted balance of 70% students from the surrounding neighborhood and 30% from elsewhere in the district. In the upper grades, she said, the mix was closer to 60% to 40%.

The geographic balance was the result of a political compromise on the Board of Education between those who believed the school was promised to the surrounding neighborhood and should serve only its children, and those who believed that such a landmark campus should serve the best young dancers, musicians, actors and visual artists in the city. Another debate turned on whether students should be admitted on the basis of ability.

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In the end, students were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, although Blake said the school naturally attracted those with an interest in the arts.

If the physical facility was the initial draw for many at 450 N. Grand, the magnet at the Fernando Pullum charter school was . . . Fernando Pullum. An award-winning teacher and musician who spent many years leading a music program at Washington Prep High School, Pullum was recruited to the Inner City Education Foundation two years ago and has a modest goal for the new school that carries his name.

“This is going to be the best school in the entire world,” he assured about 135 ninth- and 10th-graders at an opening-day assembly Tuesday in the sanctuary of the school’s new home, Paradise Baptist Church. The school will add 11th and 12th grades in the coming years. Pullum said the school will measure success by the number of students who go on to college, not by how many become stars.

Among the assets that Pullum brings to the school is an iPhone filled with contacts from the entertainment industry, where he moonlights as a working musician. Already, he has aired radio ads for the school featuring Cosby and Cheadle, and has commitments from institutions that include the Creative Artists Agency, UCLA, the Grammy Foundation and the Music Center.

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“Wherever he goes is where I go,” said the Creative Artists Agency’s Michael Yanover, who has brought such celebrities as Roger Daltrey of the Who, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford to work with Pullum’s students in the past.

Plans have already been announced for the artists Jackson Browne and Fishbone to appear at the school this month as part of the John Lennon Educational Bus Tour. Browne has volunteered at Pullum’s schools for years, and Pullum plays in Fishbone’s band.

Pullum’s counterparts at 450 N. Grand have lined up their own list of arts-world partners, including the Music Center, Colburn School of Music, Museum of Contemporary Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, suggesting a continuing eagerness by the creative community to fill in the gaps in schools’ arts classes.

Although existing arts schools -- and there are a number in Southern California -- might be expected to resent the new faces on the block, Principal Leah Bass-Baylis of the CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys said she welcomes them. “There’s such a dearth of opportunity for quality arts education,” she said. “You know, I think of everybody as partners.”

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In a city this size, Bass-Baylis said, “there’s enough to go around. There are definitely enough kids to go around.”

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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