L.A.'s Cortines arts high school loses another principal

Students at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. The high school's principal, Norman Isaacs, recently resigned, saying that funding for the arts programs is not secure.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

One principal quit even before the flagship arts high school in downtown Los Angeles enrolled its first students in 2009. The school opened with two leaders, and both were gone by the end of the first year. The next principal lasted a year. Two high-profile principals from arts high schools elsewhere accepted the job twice — and backed out twice.

Now it’s happened again.

After less than two years on the job, Norman Isaacs has resigned as principal of the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. And he is making it very clear why.

“No one has found a way to fund any of the programs that are ongoing,” Isaacs said in an interview. “We have a $65-million theater and no money to run it.


“It got to the point where I could not get the support from the district that was so very important, and I needed to call attention to that,” said Isaacs, a veteran Los Angeles Unified School District administrator, who gave notice in June.

Isaacs said the $232-million campus, whose smooth modern steel forms prominently overlook the 101 Freeway on Grand Avenue, is caught in the Catch-22 of its admissions policy.

L.A. school board member Monica Garcia has used her influence to mandate that 70% of enrollment must come from the low-income neighborhoods adjacent to the school. She represents that area on the Board of Education.

That position has put off donors who followed the lead of philanthropist Eli Broad. Broad — and the school board that approved the school — wanted the campus to serve the most talented students from across the school system. Broad has also supported the idea of removing the campus entirely from direct district control.

L.A. Unified, meanwhile, has been hard-pressed to fund the campus during the state’s recession. And, if the school is intended to be mainly a neighborhood facility, why would it deserve more funding than programs elsewhere? There are now arts high schools at the Robert F. Kennedy campus in Koreatown, in the west San Fernando Valley and at the Torres campus east of downtown, not to mention arts magnet programs such as at Hamilton High in Palms.

The Cortines school operates with an assistant principal over each of four arts disciplines: theater, music, dance and visual arts. It also has four extra teachers who provide for a full arts schedule. But there is no guarantee that the extra funding for these positions, close to $1 million annually, will exist after next year.

“It wouldn’t be an arts school if we were to lose those positions,” Isaacs said.

The ongoing funding challenges and the looming loss of the district supplement is a concern for L.A. Unified, said Tommy Chang, a senior district administrator.

“We will go back and revisit how we will fund the school,” said Chang, who oversees the arts school and dozens of others. “We need to figure all this out over the course of the next 12 months.”

So far, Garcia’s vision — that most students come from the local area — hasn’t been realized.

According to Isaacs, 70% of students come from outside the area. Although he was allowed to recruit only locally, he said he couldn’t get nearly enough neighborhood students to sign up.

The area has other new schools and independently operated charter schools competing for students in a period of declining enrollment.

And building interest in the school is difficult because, during tight budget years, the district reduced elementary and middle school arts programs that could feed students to the high school. Nearby Virgil Middle School, for example, had a highly regarded orchestral music program and later added a dance program. But budget cuts terminated both efforts, officials said.

Some local students were not especially driven toward the arts but chose the school for its academics or its safe environment. The vast majority of students arrive with little or no arts training.

Chang said Isaacs’ resignation was unexpected and disappointing. He said a nationwide search was immediately launched; the application period was scheduled to close last Friday.

Isaacs, 69, came out of retirement to take over the school, which is called “Number 9" among students because it opened as Central Los Angeles High School #9 on Sept. 9, 2009.

Isaacs started in the school system as a teacher and much later built the performing arts magnet at Millikan Middle School. He then founded CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts, a role that brought him into occasional conflict with his former employer.

So far, the tally at Cortines is five principals who have managed the 4-year-old school: The co-leaders in the first year were Suzanne Blake and Rex Patton. Luis Lopez came next for one year. And retiree Chieko Rupp managed the campus until Isaacs came on board.

The job was accepted on two occasions each by Kim Bruno, principal at the LaGuardia arts school in New York City, and Rory Pullens, who heads the Ellington arts school in Washington, D.C.

Both changed their minds — twice.

Chang said candidates inside the district and from across the nation would be considered. A committee from the school will interview the short list, with the final decision made by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

In the past, Broad was willing to supplement the salary to attract a top candidate. Through a spokesperson, he noted that the school is drawing students from a “broader geography” and said he “looks forward” to Deasy recruiting “a principal whose leadership will inspire” financial support.

Parents and teachers gave Isaacs credit for strengthening academics, settling down campus factions, and helping retire debts from a performance tour and other efforts. Isaacs also donated his entire salary to fund a keyboard lab for the music department.

Despite turmoil over principals and other issues, the school has staged some impressive shows and won the loyalty of many students, parents and employees.

“The school is a phenomenal facility,” Isaacs said. “The kids are great and they love the school.”