Seven million dollars. That’s how much money the 147 students in 2015’s graduating class of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) amassed in college scholarships. They went to Juilliard, Stanford, Cooper Union, UC Berkeley and numerous other schools in the UC system. And they made Mitzi Yates Lizárraga very proud.
The principal of LACHSA since 2014, Lizárraga radiates intelligence, passion and positivity, and has spent a quarter-century pouring those attributes into arts education. Growing up as a dancer in Washington, D.C., Lizárraga saw firsthand the birth of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, D.C.’s only college-prep high school to provide intensive pre-professional arts training. As a student, she participated in its beginnings, as a summer program and a series of after-school workshops, and watched it morph into a full-fledged high school.
“At that time, if you wanted to train in the arts, your options were very limited,” Lizárraga says. “And here was a program that offered quality arts training for young people in D.C., most of them black. Because I got that, I wanted to give that back. And I’ve only worked in urban schools.”
She now oversees one of the most respected arts high schools in the country, which focuses on academics as well as the arts, and views college preparedness as its No. 1 goal.
After teaching dance in New York City, advancing to the corporate level at a bank in Hartford, Connecticut (where she started an architecture and city planning program for middle school students), and serving as director of the Greater Hartford Academy for the Performing Arts, she returned to the Duke Ellington School in D.C. as principal. In 2005, she moved West to accept a job as principal of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. In 2014, she made the move from San Diego to L.A.’s LACHSA.
The success of the school and its graduates makes admission to LACHSA highly competitive — especially since the school accepts students with artistic talent but less-than-stellar grade point averages. Students are chosen on the basis of audition or portfolio work, and around 1,200 kids apply each year for 150 or so spaces.
“Admissions are audition-based, and we require that the students have a 2.0 or higher for seventh and eighth grade,” Lizárraga says. “But we do look hard at kids who are hovering right around that 2.0 but who have a great audition, because we want kids who might not have had access to a wonderful education simply because of their ZIP code.”
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Lizárraga sees it as part of her mission to offer this kind of arts education to kids who might not otherwise have such an opportunity. She points to students such as junior Chester Milton, a filmmaker who’s screened his movie, Lucky Number, at several film festivals and was a driving force behind the Apple commercial created by LACHSA students, which aired during the 2015 Oscars.
“Every year at graduation, I still tear up,” she says. “That’s when I know I’ll be done, when I don’t get emotional seeing these young people who have accomplished so much, who have become themselves in the years they were with us.”