Arts schools need access to arts, not pipe dreams

July 28, 1996|By GLENN McNATT

A SUGGESTION by city officials that the Baltimore School for the Arts be moved from its current Cathedral Street location to a site in the Lexington Terrace public housing project on the western edge of downtown has been met mostly with incredulity.

As they say in the Army, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The School for the Arts has been one of this city's educational success stories. It draws a diverse student body from across the city and the region, and its outstanding arts instruction is matched by an excellent academic program.

Nearly all the school's graduates go on to college or directly into professional performing careers. Its dropout rate is virtually zero.

Part of the school's effectiveness has been its downtown location in the heart of the city's cultural district, close to the Peabody Institute, Center Stage and Meyerhoff Hall.

Yet earlier this month Walter G. Amprey, the city superintendent of schools, said a committee has been meeting in recent weeks to discuss plans for establishing a new kindergarten-through-12th-grade school for the arts in the Lexington Terrace project.

In fairness, the idea didn't originate with city officials. The discussions apparently were prompted by Lexington Terrace residents, who approached the arts high school earlier this year for help in operating an elementary school for the arts there.

The city had planned to renovate the aging Lexington Terrace Elementary School anyway as the high-rise apartment buildings in the project were torn down and replaced with a $22.7 million development of rowhouses and business, educational and recreational amenities.

When the BSA staff looked at Lexington Terrace Elementary, however, they found that the building was so unsuited for an arts school that it would be better to tear it down and start all over.

Once the idea of building a completely new school began to percolate, it seemed logical to consider whether it would be more cost-effective to combine a new lower school and the high school in one building on the same site.

The problem is that Lexington Terrace is the wrong place for a citywide, K-12 arts school. Such a school should be located downtown, preferably in the arts district near where the present school stands.

That's always been the view of the arts school staff, though over the years the difficulty of finding suitable space near the Cathedral Street site has led to various feasibility studies of other sites.

When the Brokerage building off the Inner Harbor became vacant, for example, there was talk of turning that space into an arts middle school. Before that, there was a plan to convert what was then West Baltimore Middle School into a magnet school for the arts.

Renowned educator Lisa Delpit drew up detailed plans for an arts elementary school to be housed on the unused fourth floor of Booker T. Washington Middle School, which has independently developed an integrated arts- and music-based curriculum.

But Delpit, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's prestigious "genius" grant, could never win the support of school officials for the project and eventually left Baltimore. Other plans for an arts lower school similarly foundered for lack of resources to make them a reality.

Baltimore would certainly benefit greatly from having a selective arts lower school that could draw talented youngsters from across the region.

Such a school could serve as a model for middle schools everywhere by raising standards and expections. Parents increasingly realize that instruction in arts and music is a vital component of the education process, which enhances students' ability to learn in every other area.

That certainly is what has happened in other jurisdictions when strong arts magnet-school programs are created.

The success of Prince George's County's arts magnet high school resulted not only in the creation of arts middle and elementary magnet schools in the county but also encouraged educators in all the other schools to beef up their art and music curriculums. Baltimore County's arts magnet school is having a similar effect on local schools there.

Part of the problem is that Baltimore is so strapped for funds that almost all such schemes smack of pie-in-the-sky to city officials, who can barely maintain the aging schools they have, let alone build expensive new state-of-the-art facilities.

Perhaps they are enticed by the federal empowerment zone dollars associated with the Lexington Terrace renovation, believing that somehow those resources can be harnessed to create a showcase arts school to complete the redevelopment project.

But such a vision would be penny-wise, pound-foolish if it can only be realized by moving the arts high school from its present location, which seems ideally suited to its mission. When you have a success like that, why mess with it?

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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