Saturday, September 11, 2010

ARTS HIGH SCHOOL, TAKE TWO. Much Has Changed, Including the Principal, at the $232 Million Downtown Campus

After a first year that included both stumbles and progress, the keys to the $232 million arts high school have been handed to new Local District Supt. Dale Vigil (right) and principal Luis Lopez. Photo by Gary Leonard.

by Ryan Vaillancourt | LA DOWNTOWN NEWS |

Friday, September 10, 2010 5:29 PM PDT -- DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - From the outside, it seems the $232 million High School for the Visual and Performing Arts can’t quite find its footing.

Its gestation was marred by political controversy and conflict. Designs were created then vastly reworked. The first two people offered the job of principal turned it down. When the school finally opened last year, it was only after the Los Angeles Unified School District won a bitter, protracted battle for control of the campus over a group who felt it should be a charter school.

When principal Suzanne Blake took over, she told Los Angeles Downtown News that she was shoving the school’s various controversies to the side: “Leave me alone,” she said, voicing her message to district administrators and other stakeholders in the campus. “Stop fighting… Give me the autonomy to do this.”

It turns out, the trouble hasn’t stopped. When students return to the sleek, steel-encased school on Sept. 13, they’ll be greeted by a new principal. Blake is gone (as is a former co-leader of the school, executive director Rex Patton) and no one has publicly stated why. New Local District Superintendent Dale Vigil came on in July and quickly removed Blake; he has declined to explain the move, calling it a personnel matter.

Some stakeholders in the school grade its first year as mostly successful. The theater academy staged two large-scale musical productions. The fledgling music academy traveled to competitions against far more established institutions.

Yet even those came against other setbacks, namely the school’s failure last spring to notch an important state accreditation. That only changed after Supt. Ramon Cortines got involved and persuaded the accreditation agency to return to the campus, which is now accredited for three years.

This is the world that new principal Luis Lopez, who leaves his principal post at Franklin Middle School in Highland Park, is walking into. Lopez knows the arts school well. He was the only other finalist for the principal job last year, and his son attends the school (he also had two children at Franklin).

When he accepted the job this summer, Lopez knew the transition would be rocky. Parents have been highly critical of the LAUSD for removing Blake without much explanation; they protested outside LAUSD headquarters in July, during which they chanted “Save Ms. Blake,” and even created a website using the same slogan.

Vigil and others are hopeful that Lopez’s track record will ease the situation. Vigil notes that he has experience running a high school, whereas Blake came from a middle school background.

“Mr. Lopez is very much cognizant of standards of practice that every administrator is expected to follow,” Vigil said. “He knows comprehensive high schools, which is different than middle schools.”

Learning From Mistakes

The school’s high-profile campus and high price tag come with higher-than-usual budget demands. Maintaining instruments, photography equipment, theater set materials and other arts-related resources will be a challenge going forward.

As executive director, Patton was charged with overseeing fundraising. Now that he is gone, the position has been eliminated. Lopez plans on going in a different direction.

“We are thinking about aggressive plans to really build an endowment and we’re looking at it in the long term,” Lopez said. “Rather than fundraising for expenses as we go along, we want to build an endowment to keep a reserve and spend from the earnings.”

Lopez oversaw a roughly $1 million fundraising effort during his eight years at Franklin, largely through tapping private foundations and alumni.

More pressing, however, are curriculum changes that Lopez said are needed to correct problems the school faced in year one. The campus is divided into four arts academies, each with its own administrator and faculty. Last year, some students experienced difficulty enrolling in certain core courses that were not offered in their academy. This year, the school has worked out a sort of passport system that will allow students to take courses in other academies.

The school also needs to ease a tug of war between arts teachers and those teaching core courses, Lopez said. He noted an example from last year when a theater student was repeatedly pulled out of math class to polish his lines for an upcoming play. Meanwhile, his math performance suffered.

“The math teacher is clamoring that you can’t pull them out, his grade is going down,” Lopez said. “But the theater teacher says, ‘We’re an arts school. We need to make sure the student practices.’”

The conflict strikes at the heart of a question that has been asked since the school was conceived. Is it an arts school, meant to tailor and nurture the city’s best budding young artists? Or is it a high school that uses arts to enhance academic performance in a historically under-performing student body?

Lopez said it is more the later.

“We need to find the balance between arts and academics,” he said. “That seemed to be a huge issue last year. Instead of finding a common ground, it seemed to become quite divisive.”

Grand Partnerships

While fundraising will be a primary goal moving forward, perhaps the school’s most valuable outside asset is the Grand Avenue Partners, an organization comprised of the major cultural institutions along the street.

The organization works to enhance arts education in the LAUSD, and for years has supported the arts high school’s main feeder middle schools — Virgil, Berendo and John Liechty — grooming students for a possible trip to the Downtown high school.

In the high school’s first year, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic participated in music exercises, and staffers from Center Theatre Group lent a hand to the two theater productions (La Llorona and Peter Pan). CalArts, which runs REDCAT, coordinated an after-school program in animation.

The partners also facilitated meetings between high school and middle school arts faculty in order to better coordinate preparation for high school-level arts course work, said Mark Slavkin, the Music Center’s vice president for education, who helps coordinate the Grand Avenue Partners’ efforts with the local schools.

This year, in addition to providing more hands-on arts education resources, Slavkin said the group wants to develop more internship opportunities for students to learn about careers in the arts.

The stumbles in year one, said Slavkin, himself a former LAUSD board member, were to be expected: They happen at every new high school.

“LAUSD is opening new schools at a pretty remarkable pace and at most of them there’s no media spotlight, nobody pays attention but stuff happens — people change, they hit bumps,” Slavkin said.

Vigil and Board President Monica Garcia said they expect more changes this year, and for the next several years before the school hits its stride.

“I think it’s evolution and development more than change,” Garcia said. “I think that clearly it’s important for people to work together and I think it’s important for this school to embrace the high expectations of this neighborhood and civic community.”

Even the school’s enrollment ratio — it reserves 70% of its seats for local students and 30% for district-wide students — will likely change, Vigil said. Before the school opened, the ratio was a key node in the discussion over the facility and who should attend it. Vigil said the ratio is a goal, not a policy.

“It’s going to take three to four years before this school is really worked out,” he said.

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