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Experimental school poised to open with promise, and problems


Central Los Angeles High School #9 is the newest addition to LAUSD and Grand Avenue. The completed project
cost more than $230 million and will be the only school that will focus on the arts.
For the past three years, students at Berendo Middle School have been immersed in an arts program that has exposed them to theater, dance, music and the visual arts, all in preparation for a new arts high school in Los Angeles. But will everyone, students, parents and school district included, be ready for the arts-oriented experiment?

Berendo, along with Virgil and John Liechty Middle Schools, is among the schools that will be sending students to the new high school in downtown Los Angeles. Central Los Angeles High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts will be the new addition to LAUSD, come fall 2009.

But Central L.A. High School #9 has little to do with the rest of the schools in the district. This school, in the works since 2001, will be on the north side of Grand Avenue and will complement the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The lofty, gray and metallic building looks like it was shipped from the future with its cone-like theater and circle-shaped windows. One of its more noticeable features is the long, 140-feet high tower looming over the 101 Freeway.

One of its supporters is billionaire and philanthropist Eli Broad, who is also behind the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and is a regent at the Smithsonian Institution. Broad along with others from the Grand Avenue Partners (GAP), which includes all the arts institutions along the avenue and also focus on revitalizing the area, supported the $230 million project that has taken more than eight years to finish.

For more than two years, GAP has helped the surrounding schools with the transition. The art agencies such as the Music Center, MOCA, and Colbert School of Music have partnered with the district to arrange field trips and deliver performances at all the schools. Once the students are settled, specifically 11th graders, they will be given the opportunity to intern at any of these agencies. The school offers one other innovation: academic teachers who also are trained in music. Jim Hahn, founder and director of ARETE Preparatory Academic School in west Los Angeles, a small private school that is also trying to integrate arts with academics says that “The idea of partnerships with arts and academic teachers is interesting. I don’t think it’s been done in public schools yet, but, because it’s experimental they would have to have a clear-cut plan because they will be dealing with a lot of students.”

The school offers plenty of promise—and problems.

A funding shortfall

The $230 million only covered the cost of the luminous building. The district is currently in the midst of a national search for a principal who will start in February. As for the teaching staff, the district cannot afford to hire anyone until a new fiscal year next summer begins. The academic curriculum will have the same requirements as all other schools in the district. Richard Alonzo, local district 4 superintendent, explains that the difference in the curriculum will be that the school will be divided into four academies: music, dance, drama and visual arts. In order to incorporate the arts with academics all the teachers will be required to have some background in the arts. “Anyone that will be hired that has any kind of an arts background…if you’re a math teacher and you happen to play the piano, then that’s the people that we want to hire. They have the sensibility to the connection of the content and the arts” he said.

In planning for an arts school, Alonzo researched schools across the nation that had successfully integrated academics and the arts. While researching, he also realized that running an arts school costs more than 50 percent than a traditional public school.

“LAUSD has to have more funding in order to offer a rich arts program because right now they spend one third of what a private school spends and that’s not enough,” said Paul Cummins, executive director of New Visions Foundation. “For example, Crenshaw High School has a beautiful dance studio but they can’t afford a dance teacher.”

Arts education has long been the first subject cut in economic downtowns because it is often viewed as a frill. But in Los Angeles, supporters of the school are making efforts to make sure the school opens with plenty of money. To help with the funding, Alonzo founded the non-profit organization Discovering the Arts Inc. three years ago that will help raise money to make up the difference from what the district will offer.

Cummins also mentioned that LAUSD’s innovative idea will be more beneficial in offering a quality education. Rather than spending time teaching students how to take a standardized test, an arts-academic curriculum would help students stay in school. He said, “The arts are one of the ways you engage kids to education and the way you have lower dropout rates. Students will stay in school if they offer something they like to do.” He continued, “The arts have been cut out because they spend more time on preparing kids to take tests. You raise your test scores a little bit but more kids drop out because they don’t like going to school to take tests.”

The school will service 1,200 students from around the “Belmont Zone of Choice,” an area that includes Belmont High School and Miguel Contreras High School and 500 more from the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Most of the students will come from schools of below-average performance, such as Berendo.

Leveling the 'playing field'

Berendo Middle School, founded in 1911, is located near downtown Los Angeles and Korea Town. The immediate neighborhood is composed of predominantly Latino families below the poverty level. The school itself is an austere, white building with a tall metal fence around it. Across the street, the colorful houses in green, yellow and blue have tall, metal fences and tattered cars parked in front; it is a substantially different neighborhood from that of Grand Avenue, where the new arts school is under construction.

This school is plagued with the classic problems found in almost every LAUSD. The average test score on the state-mandated standardized test is around 660 out of 1,000. It has taken the school 14 years to improve 200 points; in 1994, the school’s average score was a little above 400. “[Berendo] has been a program improvement school, meaning that our test scores are below acceptable measures based on No Child Left Behind and based on any measure," said Principal Robert Bilovsky. Fifty percent of the students at Berendo are in ESL classes (English as a Second Language), a factor that affects their test scores since these students have to take a standardized test designed for fluent-English speakers. One hundred percent of the students are on free lunch, another aspect that points to the social status of the neighborhood. Although the school has been relieved of roughly 700 students by John Leighty Middle School, it is still servicing 2,300 on a year round basis.

Still, even if the school is not ready yet, and even if the arts-academic curriculum is not yet set on stone, what the new Central L.A. High School # 9 is offering 1,700 kids is the opportunity to explore a foreign world only a few blocks away. These kids that have been taking drama classes and music lessons, Bilovsky says, “are very parochial; they only know the area that’s right around here. They don’t know what else is out there.

“We’ve shown the students the informational DVD, and their initial reaction is, ‘I can go to that school? Is this real? Is this really there and I can go there?’” recalled Bilovsky, who expects to send roughly 100 students next year and hopes to increase that number every year. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be successful based on facilities and the small learning communities."

Indeed, a recent study by the Education Commission of the States supports the idea that arts can, and often does, play a critical role in improving the academic performance of students. “Among the most critical findings is that learning in and through the arts can “level the playing field” for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds," said ECS, a Denver-based non-profit, non-partisan education research organization funded by the 50 states. In a national sample of 25,000 students, ECS reports that those students "with high levels of arts-learning experiences earned higher grades and scored better on standardized tests than those with little or no involvement in the arts—regardless of socioeconomic status. Learning through the arts also appears to have significant effects on learning in other disciplines, with students consistently involved in music and theater showing higher levels of success in math and reading.”

Alonzo acknowledges all these facts. A former arts teacher himself, he has helped schools in his area improve their arts program to help kids with the transition. “Our local district is helping more than the larger district in helping us getting the extra teachers we need. Mr. Alonzo in particular has been very big in pushing the arts in the whole district,” said Bilovsky.

What upsets Alonzo is when he’s asked if these kids deserve this school. “Over the past 26 years, the kids living in this downtown area have not had the opportunity of going to a neighborhood school," he said. "We have been busing out thousands of children from this area including kindergarten kids.” And that, according to Alonzo, has cost the district more than building a new school. “Belmont High School had 5,800 children, drop-out rates of over 50 percent, a daily attendance of less than 80 percent, so here we have the worst of school conditions that existed, and I’m insulted when they ask if they deserve a school that cost this much,” he said. “They deserve that and much more.”

However, there are speculations on whether the school will eventually become an elite academy. “There is a lot of discussion whether it should be a magnet school or if students should try out for it, or if it should be available only for those students who meet the qualifications,” Bilovsky said. “I’m glad they haven’t done something like that because it would exclude a lot of our students who are pretty talented and just need the exposure to the arts in order to improve their talents.” Because, he says, “Loving the arts is not a middle class or upper middle class opportunity. It should be for all of our students.”