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In addition, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provides $1 million a year to schools, libraries and communities in and around downtown. And “teaching artists” provided by LACMA have been showing public school teachers how to talk to students about art before art-oriented field trips. LACMA has also installed a gallery at nearby Charles White Elementary School showcasing community artists and the museum’s collection.
It’s all very new for this part of town, where numerous gangs operate and the gentrified enclaves of Chinatown and Echo Park are greatly outmatched by heavily overcrowded and poor neighborhoods.
Wendy Bernstein, a former drama teacher, tears up recalling a Saturday evening in July, when 90 students and their parents boarded buses at Berendo school for a short trip to Walt Disney Concert Hall a few miles away. Few Berendo students enjoy the backgrounds typical of more economically advantaged kids. They’re not heading to an arts magnet school in the fall after, say, a summer’s worth of opera lessons. Even so, many Berendo students say they’d like the chance. “I like to draw,” says Jesus Contreras, an eighth grader. “I would like to try sculpture. I’d like to learn how to make the hands, the shape of a body.”
Charter-schools expert Young points out, “When you look at the gospel choir talent, visual arts talent [and] we’ve got one of the most vibrant Chicano art scenes in the country — these talents are not exclusive to kids who have been raised with a conservatory education.”
But former LAUSD school board member David Tokofsky, who participated in key reforms in reading, math and academics that have dramatically improved test scores in the city’s worst grade schools, predicts that the highly visible High School #9 experiment will be short-lived.
“The defining of what ‘community’ means is treacherous,” Tokofsky says. He believes that under Superintendent David Brewer, district officials will quietly turn it into another magnet school that shuts out local kids and uses highly selective screenings. “I don’t know why you’d build a state-of-the-art school for the arts and only let ‘beginning strings’ in,” he says of what he sees as an ill-fated idea.
When they were swept into power in the hard-fought mid-2007 elections, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s hand-picked allies on the LAUSD school board promised to fix the high schools. But so far, state test scores and dropout statistics show that the Villaraigosa-dominated school board has made no progress. No LAUSD official has yet explained to taxpayers how the district plans to run a successful arts-oriented high school amid all its other challenges — and failures.
Even with millions of dollars in public and private funds financing High School #9, it is about how the kids will be educated. Says education professor Darling Hammond, “a very carefully planned curriculum that gets kids involved in highly motivating and engaging reading, extensive writing [that] may even integrate arts in the process has a very strong, positive effect on achievement gain. I think that’s what they’re really aiming for. And is there a danger that they won’t succeed? Well certainly there is.”