A song of hope for a city and its youths' potential

April 19, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SATURDAY NIGHT at the Hippodrome Theatre, there came a moment that captured a city's giddiest sense of self-image. On stage stood Kerri Garbis, graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, with dozens of the school's students gathered behind her, and they commenced to sing, and their voices should echo down the corridors of every street in town.

The song was "Good Morning, Baltimore," from John Waters' Hairspray. Somebody ought to declare it the city's municipal anthem. It surges and soars from slapstick street-corner drunks ("they wish me luck on my way to school") to the yearnings of a teenage girl refusing to be cast aside. It stirs the heart while poking fun at the city's eternal quirkiness. It is the psyche of a hopeful Baltimore in a lyrical comic nutshell.

And now, Saturday night, as supporters of the School for the Arts gathered to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the number provided pure electricity for a packed house at the city's newest theater on the rejuvenated west side of downtown, as Garbis sang:

"It's like a message from high above

Oh, oh, oh

Pulling me out to the smiles

And the streets that I love

Good morning, Baltimore."

And good morning, Kerri Garbis, too. She graduated from the School for the Arts in 1989. Since then, she has finished Syracuse University. She toured the country in Evita and Singin' in the Rain and Oklahoma! and Sweet Charity and Grease and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

She came home Saturday night, like so many of the school's alumni, to perform, and to pay respects, and to offer hope. There was Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. There was Mashica Hunt Winslow, who has sung with Wynton Marsalis and Jessye Norman. There was Abe Reybold, who has sung at Carnegie Hall, and written and directed for New York theater. There was Fuschia Walker, who did Dreamgirls on Broadway. There was Tracie Thoms, now shooting the film version of Rent.

And there were two dozen other graduates, singers and actors and dancers and musicians, all of them working professionally, who got their start at the School for the Arts and performed Saturday, and it was lovely to behold. First, because this was an explosion of marvelous talent. Second, because it hinted at all the vitality among young people across the city.

And, third, because this school continues to hold its standards high. Saturday night's annual fund-raiser brought in about $500,000. It will help the school's current three-year expansion plans, which carry a $24 million price tag.

And it also implicitly raised a question: If we can find so much triumph in these kids struggling to find their way in the murderously competitive world of the arts, why can't the city's other public schools mine some of the same potential?

Nobody needs reminders of the continuing struggles of the public schools. In a city with so many neighborhoods stirring to life and downtown development soaring, the schools show signs of improvement but fail to capture any kind of general confidence. Reading and math scores are better, but nothing to brag about. The schools are safer than their reputation - but that reputation lingers.

The School for the Arts has advantages not enjoyed by most public schools. For one, it can choose which kids to enroll, and it selects only about 10 percent of those who apply. But it chooses on the basis of talent. If a kid needs academic help, the school provides tutoring.

About 96 percent of the grads go on to colleges and conservatories. The SAT verbal scores are the highest in the city over the past eight years, and its math scores are second-highest. The school has been called one of the top five public arts high schools in the nation. The U.S. Department of Education called it a Blue Ribbon School.

But the school's success also makes us wonder how they do it. Do other schools get to pick and choose only the top 10 percent of applicants? No. But the School for the Arts takes some pretty raw kids and finds the promise inside of them.

Take Lee Pearson. You should have heard him play the drums Saturday night, with Mashica Hunt Winslow singing a marvelous "My Funny Valentine" and Ron Baker, Tim Green, Joel Holmes, Chris Vasquez, Dontae Winslow and Bert Witzel providing backup. They're all alumni.

Pearson was a kid who auditioned for the school a decade ago and was so hungry to attend that he faked it. He pretended to be able to read music. He just had a great memory. He went on to tour Africa with saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett. He played the best clubs in New York. Now he's with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

It all started at the School for the Arts, where Baltimore's most promising artistic kids reach for their potential. Saturday night at the Hippodrome was a celebration of 25 years. But it should remind some other high schools about their own kids' potential, which is just waiting to be tapped.

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