School for the Arts binds the ties of community

September 17, 1995|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff Writer

The Baltimore School for the Arts, the city's most innovative public high school, is going through a period of transition and uncertainty as it seeks a replacement for its soon-to-be-retiring principal, David Simon. He is proving a hard act to follow.

Mr. Simon, who is the only director the school has had since its founding 15 years ago, was supposed to step down in June. But the search committee's first choice to replace him decided not to come. It seems that when word got out that Baltimore was interested, his present employers moved heaven and earth to keep him where he was.

The difficulty of finding a successor for Mr. Simon, whose vision has shaped virtually every aspect of the School for the Arts, reflects the unusual position the school occupies in the city school system and among Baltimore arts institutions. It is unique in that it shares elements of both: It is a public school with an independent board and fund-raising apparatus, and it is an important cultural institution in its own right.

Last year, for example, students at the School for the Arts had the highest average SAT scores in the city. They also put on their annual production of the "Nutcracker." The school is widely VTC regarded as one of the finest arts schools in the country.

Whoever takes the helm after Mr. Simon departs will become heir to a great tradition. It's worth considering what that tradition has meant to Baltimore in the past as well as what it bodes for the city's future.

The School for the Arts was one of the last grand projects of Baltimore's renaissance years under former mayor William Donald Schaefer. It came at the tail end of the era that produced Charles Center, Harborplace and the gentrification of neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Charles Village. And like each of those developments, it represented a Schaeferesque optimism in the possibility of civic renewal and pride.

Of course, there were skeptics who complained the infant arts school would be elitist, another instance of the widening gap between rich and poor that was dividing the city. Critics charged that money for the school might be better spent expanding arts and music instruction in the regular public schools, which had been sharply cut back. Meanwhile, the teachers' union and central administrators resented the arts school's power to set its own standards and budget and hire faculty independently.

Through a combination of diplomacy, stubbornness, humor and dedication, Mr. Simon managed to negotiate all these pitfalls. By race and class, the arts school is probably the most integrated institution in the city -- public or private. Ninety-eight percent of its graduates go on to college or directly into professional careers, and the dropout rate is virtually zero. Its invaluable T.W.I.G.S (To Work in Gaining Skills) program is the city's most important outreach effort to disadvantaged youngsters with an interest in the arts.

The school is testament to the fact that the most effective economic development project is a good public school. It's also an example of the role arts institutions play in binding the ties of community that make other kinds of development possible. Arts schools are almost by definition unconventional, but the unconventional approach may be precisely what is missing in efforts to reform other ailing public institutions.

There is no reason why city high schools could not emulate the daily schedule at the School for the Arts, where students spend half their time engaged in creative projects and the other half on academic subjects. The academics are grouped so that instruction in specific areas -- language and social studies skills, or math and science -- is made complementary and self-reinforcing.

By contrast, the city's other public high schools are still based on the "factory model" of schooling developed at the turn of the century. The academic day is broken into seven or eight classroom periods consisting of discrete subjects. These subjects bear little or no relation to each other and fail to provide students with any comprehensive vision of what an education ought to be.

The factory model is as obsolete as the multitude of dead and dying industrial plants that dot the Baltimore landscape. Information-age employees are going to have to be more like artists -- highly skilled, creative, adaptable -- than like industrial-age factory workers.

When educators finally accept this reality, the result will be public schools that are more effective in educating young people and more diverse in the kinds of students they attract. They will renew the frayed bonds of community and the civic pride that sustains them.

For a model of the future's successful urban institution, one need look no further than the School for the Arts. No wonder Mr. Simon is going to be a tough act to follow.

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