Better than 'Fame'

Our view: Successor to retiring Baltimore School for the Arts director Leslie Shepard will have a hard act to follow

September 13, 2010

Long before school reform became a national byword, the Baltimore School for the Arts, the city's only visual and performing arts public high school, was recognized as a model for excellence. Leslie Shepard, who will be stepping down in June after 10 years as the school's director, was one of the people most responsible for the BSA's sterling reputation, which she helped build over a 30-year career that saw the school become one the best of its type in the nation.

Founded in 1979, the BSA was from the beginning different from any other city public school. Although it was funded by the Baltimore City School Department, it was governed by its own independent board and its founding principal, David Simon, was given broad authority to design the curriculum, hire and fire staff, set academic standards and manage the school's budget. By the time the BSA opened in 1980, it already embodied most of the important reforms that schools around the country are just now beginning to adopt some 30 years later.

What characterized the school then as now was an infectious enthusiasm among its students and faculty that many compared to the fictional characters in the hit movie "Fame," which by coincidence appeared the same year the BSA opened. The movie, and later a popular television series based on it, chronicled the lives of a bunch of street-wise kids at a public performing arts high school in New York City as they struggled to master their various crafts while enduring the bittersweet pains of growing up.

Like the movie's fictional cast, the BSA's students and their teachers felt more like a large, extended family than an impersonal public institution, and for many of the kids the school became something akin to a second home. It was a place where they could learn to be themselves, discover their own possibilities and dream of the future, yet still feel the protective presence of adults and peers who loved and cared about them.

Like some more recent charter and transformation schools, the BSA has always had an extended school day — the doors often don't close until 8 or 9 p.m. — and a visitor is likely to see young dancers, actors and musicians rehearsing their steps, brushing up on their lines or practicing scales long after classes have been dismissed.

The place is a constant beehive of activity, and the results show it: Although students are admitted based solely on the talent they demonstrate during an audition, and regardless of their previous grades, by the time they graduate they have some of the highest academic test scores in the state. Ninety-five percent of the school's graduates go on to college or directly into performance careers.

Ms. Shepard has been helping these young people grow and develop since the first day the school opened its doors. For many years she served as the BSA's virtual vice principal in her capacity as dean of arts. Since becoming director in 2001, she has overseen a $30 million renovation and expansion of the school's Cathedral Street campus, expanded the student body from 300 to 385, and she has extended the BSA's after-school community outreach program known as TWIGS (To Work in Gaining Skills), to more than 700 city elementary and middle school students who attend free music, dance, theater and art classes at the school.

The Baltimore School for the Arts is an example of what great educators can accomplish. Among the school's alumni are actress Jada Pinkett Smith and the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who both achieved world-wide fame for their accomplishments. But the school has also produced many lesser-known but brilliant artists, such as the baritone Eric Greene, who regularly appears on the world's concert and opera stages. Mr. Greene arrived at the school in 1988 as a shy and directionless teen with failing grades. By the time he graduated four years later he had risen to the top tier of his class academically and won a full scholarship to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City.

Ms. Shepard has dedicated herself to the task of bringing out the best in the young people she encounters for the last three decades, and she will be a hard act to follow. She helped make the BSA "better than Fame" because the young lives she influenced were real, not the inventions of Hollywood screenwriters. The BSA board has already launched a national search for her successor, but to the countless students and staff with whom Ms. Shepard has worked so hard for so many years, she will always be irreplaceable.

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