Better than 'Fame'

editorial notebook

November 01, 2008|By Glenn McNatt

The Baltimore School for the Arts opened in 1980, the same year Fame, the movie about a talented bunch of street-wise kids at a public performing arts high school in New York, debuted.

What so endeared viewers to the movie was the terrific sense of youthful energy and passion the cast brought to its portrayals of aspiring dancers, actors, artists and musicians. That same creative excitement was apparent in the very first class of 68 students at the Baltimore School for the Arts. At a time when the city's dysfunctional public school system seemed constantly plagued by crisis, it was a magical bright spot that showed what educators with vision, skill, hard work and dedication to excellence could accomplish when they put their minds to it.

More than 25 years later, that fantastic energy is still the hallmark of the school, which just completed a $30 million renovation of its Cathedral Street campus that combines the best of old and new.

The renovated buildings are among the most easily overlooked gems on the city's new architectural skyline because the biggest changes are inside - where new dance studios, practice rooms, classrooms and office space and a light-filled third-floor library have sprouted - while the elegant 19th-century facades were painstakingly preserved to blend in with the historic Mount Vernon community.

Leslie Shepard, the school's director, says it had long needed more space for its 357 high school students and 703 elementary- and middle-schoolers who participate in its TWIGS (To Work in Gaining Skills) program. She and her staff looked for larger quarters away from the school's original site in the old Alcazar Hotel building, which had been hastily renovated in the 1980s for about $2 million. Then, in 2002, a brownstone next to the school at 704 Cathedral St. unexpectedly became available and was chosen as the site for a new campus. Baltimore architects Cho Benn Holback + Associates created a design that seamlessly integrated the buildings' luminous interiors.

"We wanted to create a place where you could see dancers running up and down the stairs and in the hallways with musicians and their instruments and artists with their sketchbooks," says architect Diane Cho. "What defined the school was that terrific contagious energy."

Last week, the place was a beehive of activity, jammed with students well after the 4 p.m. dismissal. There were dancers limbering up to rehearse the school's annual holiday production of The Nutcracker Suite, musicians running through scales in practice rooms, and kids in hallways engaged in lively discussion. None was particularly eager to rush home; they seemed like family already.

Businessman Mark K. Joseph, who led the city school board in the 1970s when the idea for a performing arts high school first took shape, was the lead donor in the school's fundraising drive; the renovated building is named after him. But the real monument to all those who worked to make the school a success - from founding director David Simon and his immediate successor, Stanley E. Romanstein, to current director Shepard and her department heads, each of whom has been with the school since it began - will be the graduates of the future whose artworks and performances touch the hearts and minds of audiences and reiterate the great themes of our common humanity. That's what artists are supposed to do, whether they become famous or not, and in the end, those are the only things that artists do that truly matter.

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