By Susan Abram, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News
Kids walk through the center of campus during lunch break. One week into the opening of LAUSD School of Visual and Performing Arts, and students are making themselves at home Los Angeles, CA 9-17-2009. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)
9/29 -- She is here to learn to fly, to catch the moon in her hands.
Remember her name. "I used to be alone all the time in my other school," said Natalie Arias, a 14-year-old from North Hollywood who plays an intricate violin concerto as easily as most teens master Guitar Hero.
"I didn't talk much."
But at Central Los Angeles High School No. 9, Natalie and 1,200 other students - singers and dancers, musicians and actors - can free their inner Madonna and Baryshnikov, their Itzhak Perlman and Meryl Streep, without fear of ridicule.
Here, criticism comes without wounds. Fame comes after it is earned.
Built between the Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles Unified School District's landmark visual and performing arts school opened two weeks ago, nine years after construction began.
Dubbed by some the West Coast's "Fame" school, the $232 million complex contrasts sharply with the shabby campus depicted in the groundbreaking 1980 movie (an update debuted this weekend) about neighborhood kids looking for their big break at a performing arts high school in Manhattan.
Its exterior features a steel spiral sculpture that towers over the Hollywood Freeway. Inside, the sounds of the piano and drums ooze out from clean doorways and into wide corridors.
Students take physical education classes on a broad, open-air quad, in the shadow of the spiral. They study biology, calculus, music composition and English literature in a sunlit, circular library.
'A plethora of teachers'
A year ago, key backers worried about the project's cost and lack of progress. Philanthropist Eli Broad, an early supporter and financial contributor, hoped the school could serve as an entrance to the city's $1.5 billion Grand Avenue Civic Center development. Others expected an osmosis of sorts between the high school and the arts community. Still, many had expressed frustration with the lack of leadership and Broad even shopped it around to charter school groups. But for students and teachers, those concerns are in the past. The goal at High School No. 9 is to expand the excitement and energy within.
"The arts need to live on and they will live on," said Principal Suzanne Blake, who left Vista Middle School in Van Nuys to take on the job. Blake said she had "a plethora of teachers to choose from, because of the budget cuts."
Among them are English teachers who were once pianists and concert clarinet players, a biology teacher who also is a professional fencer and can help students master the body language needed to perform Shakespeare, and an assistant principal who also is a stage actor. A dancer herself, Blake said she entered into education because "I knew I wasn't going to be a ballerina." But on one recent day when she entered a dance class, Blake straightened her back and lifted her chin and in a no-nonsense way, joined the students who performed their warm-ups at the barre.
"Point your toes," she reminded.
<p>She and the teachers know they are being scrutinized amid concerns that students won't perform well on standardized tests. Students take eight classes a semester, including four core courses. The school also is divided into four academies: music, dance, theater and visual arts.
More than 70 percent of the students who attend the school are from the surrounding area. There are no auditions, though students must show a commitment to their interests.
"There are very high expectations on us as educators, which I appreciate," said Kyle Laughlin, a history teacher who heads the student body leadership council. The group is working on choosing a formal name for the school and presenting their choices to the community.
"We spend a tremendous time with them and every teacher stays an hour after school unpaid, voluntarily, because we want to," he said. "Every teacher feels an obligation, but pressure is good and keeps us on our toes."
Laughlin said he left a position he enjoyed at University High School for the opportunity to teach at the new campus. A troubled teen himself, he said drama class saved him. "I was a tough sell when I was a kid," he said. "My parents were supportive, but school didn't come easy to me. I needed something to spark my interest. My theater teacher saved my life."
Despite his enthusiasm, some national groups fear the school may not be able to remain public for long, as art grants and nonprofit organizations that provide funding shrink in a tight economy. As a result, the "Rolls Royce" of performing art high schools, as some have called it, may turn private.
To stay public, it needs a leader who not only has a deep appreciation for the arts, but has to run the school like a business, said Kristy Callaway, executive director for the Arts School Network, an organization formed in 1981 in Los Angeles. Of the estimated 1,700 arts schools nationwide, 500 of them are high schools.
"The more successful schools are open almost 24 hours," Callaway said. "They don't just educate but they have after-school programs and they eliminate elitism. Its goal should be a resource to the community."
Little data exists on the success of students who graduate from such schools, which is why a team from Indiana University has just launched the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a 20-year study to find out where graduates have gone, if they are happy with their present professions, and what could have been better about their school experience.
"We want to be able to give the institutions that we're working with information they can use to support policy," said Sally Gaskill, associate director and project manager for SNAAP. "We also wanted to be able to inform external policy makers how to support the fledgling arts." 'All the way to the top'
Dominique Malone, 17, said she applied to the new school because her grandmother didn't like the scene at Locke High School. She and her grandmother and mother drove to the arts school and walked around before she decided to apply.
"It's different here because everyone is so polite and everybody feeds off everybody's energy," said Dominique, who was a cheerleader at her last school but admits she didn't like the pressure of popularity. At the new school, she can express herself freely through dance, but she said she is leaning toward writing.
Natalie, the 14-year-old violinist who also is learning cello, piano and bass, said the school has opened up possibilities she never thought existed. She aspires to someday perform at Disney Concert Hall.
"I'm so thankful that people trusted us with the responsibility of attending this school," she said. At 14, visual arts student Randy Rodriquez has already sold two photographs, one that shows the diversity of the visitors along the stone sidewalks of Olvera Street. But his real love is acting. After he graduates, he wants to go to UC Berkeley, then on to Julliard.
"My mom wanted me to be a neurosurgeon," he said with a smile. "I told her I didn't think I could handle it." So his mother drives him to school each day from Long Beach, he said. He is also on the yearbook staff, working on the premiere issue with the theme: "From blueprints to footprints."
"There are a lot of people who don't understand this school. They say it's a waste of money," Randy said. "But we're going to make it - all the way to the top."