Overcoming a few roadblocks during the first year, administrators and students of Central Los Angeles High School No. 9 School of Visual and Performing Arts remain optimistic.
By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
Jessie Arnstein, as Peter Pan, right, at the nursery with Ashley Samudro, as Wendy, during rehearsal of "Peter Pan" at the new Central Los Angeles High School No.9 for the Visual and Performing Arts. The production concludes the school's first year. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times / May 31, 2010)
June 27, 2010 -- The first musical at the $232-million arts high school downtown featured two very different Peter Pans, a veteran performer and a newcomer, who together exemplify the school's goal of both showcasing and developing talent.
Their performances at Central Los Angeles High School No. School of Visual and Performing Arts concluded an occasionally rocky but overall successful inaugural year for the school district's new performing arts campus.
Financial uncertainties persist and a top administrator is departing; the accreditation review took two attempts. The school's very mission — targeting students from nearby low-income neighborhoods — remains controversial, but has been embraced by the students and staff.
"We've got the whole spectrum of performers, whether just starting out or those people like me who've been performing their whole life," said 17-year-old junior Jessie Arnstein, the more experienced "Peter Pan" performer. "We all help each other to get better. It's actually really great, because we all learn from each other."
Her fellow "Peter Pan" performer— 15-year-old freshman Andio Manguray — had never previously sung in public. And unlike Jessie, he had no vocal training.
"You don't even know what was going on in my head," Andio said comparing himself to Jessie. "She had like 40 zillion musicals she's been in. She's an amazing singer and a great actress."
Both students were aware of the new arts school while it was still under construction. Jessie, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, was intrigued by the school's large steel tower off the Hollywood Freeway. Andio visited on a class field trip from Virgil Middle School. Both decided the new school was where they wanted to be.
The student population reflects the school's mission: Overall, about three-quarters of the students qualify for subsidized meals; 65% of the students are Latino; 12% African American; 12% white and 11% Asian. About 13% are learning English.
"Peter Pan" director and drama teacher William Goldyn moved to the new arts school after 17 years at Hollywood High School. He appreciates the arts focus, noting that a production meeting draws 12 skilled theater-arts teachers, such as technical director Danny McDermott.
"It was my idea to do 'Peter Pan,' " McDermott said. "It's technically the most difficult musical, and I wanted to show what I know the school could do."
The "Peter Pan" production included a massive cast, sword fights, giant illuminated flowers, sliding and elevating set pieces and, of course, actors flying on cables.
The new school started to face complications prior to its opening. Well-regarded, experienced outside candidates turned down or withdrew from the principal's job. Officials eventually chose two district administrators: Suzanne Blake to serve as principal and Rex Patton as executive director in charge of fundraising and coordination with arts and civic organizations.
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines recently transferred Patton to Mark Twain Middle School to develop a magnet program. Cortines said budget constraints could not sustain two top administrators as well as four assistant principals at the arts school.
The arts high school costs about 30% more to run, Patton estimated, and there is limited funding from the district for costumes, set design, bows, strings, instruments and lights on music stands, as well as the extra maintenance and supervision required to run the theater outside of school hours.
Support has come from many directions: Arts organizations downtown have provided workshops, master classes and free performances at the school. Fees from film shoots at the distinctive campus have brought in $350,000. But limited charitable donations, totaling around $27,000, suggest that the city's arts philanthropists have yet to embrace the school.
That might be fallout from the disappointment that billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad expressed when the school was left under district control. He, among others, had insisted that an outside, independent charter school organization would do a better job.
Calls for the district to relinquish control resurfaced after an initial visit in March by an accreditation team from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges. Cortines quickly patched things over and arranged a second visit. This time, the result was a full three-year accreditation.
One problem was finding enough money to hire a large arts faculty, which meant that core academic teachers had to instruct as many as 240 students.
Blake said she successfully pushed for an increase in district funding for next year that should lower the number of students per teacher by 30 to 40.
The principal was beset by pockets of dissension that prompted the head of the district's teachers union to call for her dismissal. Other teachers assertively defended Blake as tireless and supportive.
"Here if I say I need fencing equipment, they find money so they can purchase 35 complete sets," said Greg Schiller, a science teacher who is also coveted for his theater expertise on stage combat.
Academically, students arrived from widely varying levels: Some talked early on of watered-down classes while others disagreed and noted, for example, that some juniors were already taking calculus.
"It's a challenge creating any new institution from scratch," said Mark Slavkin, former school board member and current vice president for education programs at the Music Center. "They surpassed my expectations for the first year."
The school system is trying to develop feeder arts programs in the earlier grades at area schools. But for now, most performers are beginners, which showed at the spirited year-end dance concert despite ingenious staging and thorough rehearsal.
"In four years you're going to be blown away," predicted regional district administrator Byron Maltez.
Districtwide, Los Angeles Unified already has a supply of theatrical standouts who can't get into the school, because 70% must come from the local attendance area.
At the new school, Andio proved to be a quick learner. Goldyn praised Andio's ability to capture Pan's kidlike essence. The student showed off his developing flair by handling two swords at once in a duel. Jessie helped with his stage blocking and harmonies. In one scene, her voice replaced his: She sang operatically from offstage as Peter taunted Captain Hook by pretending to be an alluring woman.
Jessie, too, had to grow as a performer. For the role, she had to overcome girlish mannerisms as well as a strained voice and a broken toe. Her family was impressed by her skill in carrying the show.
And 17 family members at Andio's first performance surged ahead of children wanting Peter Pan's autograph.
"They loved it," Andio said. "They didn't even know I could do these things."