The DISD’s new arts magnet school is undeniably attractive. But does it work?

Monday morning, and I’m hustling to my first class at the Arts Magnet High School. As a journalist with one modest book and several more modest articles to his credit, I’ve been invited to conduct a few workshops and give fledgling writers some sound, practical career advice. The assignment is distressingly vague, and I’m not sure what to focus on. Comma faults? Rejection slips? Surviving the three-martini lunch? But at least I look the part. Trim vested suit, blue dress shirt with a discreet print tie, a confident man-of-letters stride. At a distance I might pass for a boyish John Fowles. Sustaining the illusion is another matter.

Superficially, there is little to distinguish the Arts Magnet High School (formerly Booker T. Washington High School) on Flora from all the other cookie-cutter school buildings in Dallas. Banks of metal lockers smelling of generations of sneakers and gym shorts; long, dimly-lit corridors painted in the ubiquitous institutional tan and brown; large, featureless classrooms that could just as easily be storerooms. Nothing unexpected except a series of bright geometric murals done by students.

And a pervasive upbeat mood. As I wander through the maze of corridors looking for my classroom, I pass two brass ensembles in various stages of rehearsal as well as one solitary trumpet player practicing his scales in a stairwell. “The acoustics are terrific out here,” he says as I surge by. Half the students I see are dressed in tights, the rest in an assortment of jeans, jumpsuits, serapes, and what appear to be lengths of drapery fabric. One corridor is taken up by a display of student art work, mostly charcoal drawings and pots, while another has been transformed into a scenery shop for an upcoming production of John Arden’s eccentric nativity play, The Business of Good Government. Outside is a spacious multi-level performance area decorated with colorful banners; inside the halls hum with conventional chatter about’’ Happy Days” and the Cowboys, although you’re as likely to hear about Dvorak as Dorsett.

Certainly not the sort of high school I remember. Back then the arts were for the freaks,, meaning those who for one reason or another hadn’t figured out how to “do” school. Kids who could draw were allowed to paint scenery for the school play, those who couldn’t were doomed to spend an entire semester trying to sketch the steeple of the local Congregational church. Being a musician wasn’t much better, although our band did once make it to the Rose Bowl Parade. The repertoire consisted mainly of fight songs and Sousa marches, and instruction was limited to a single phrase – BE LOUD. My buddy Rick, now playing lead trombone with Woody Herman, got tossed out for blowing jazz riffs during the Awards Day Assembly. Improvisation was not encouraged. We were a serious academic institution. Merit Scholars, the Ivy League, the life of the mind. Anyone seriously interested in the arts was told to buy an FM radio.

At the Magnet School the arts are clearly as important as Civics or Plane Geometry. A refreshing change. But can these students also read and write? I wonder. I know a lot of parents are asking the same question. I recalled hearing one anxious father complaining that his son had decided to become a dancer. “Nothing wrong with dancing, mind you, but what happens if he breaks a leg. Will he be good for anything else?”

I was about to find out. My first class is a mixture of sophomores and juniors, all full-time. (Approximately one third of the students take only their “arts” clusters at the Magnet-School, returning to their home schools for academic subjects. If the court guidelines are followed, there will be no part-time students in a few years.) We greet one another across a horseshoe of long, low tables that might have been commandeered from a children’s library. The room is small and stuffy but brighter than most, with posters and some drawings of the Canterbury pilgrims adorning the walls.

I decide to start with some simple language awareness exercises as a way of leading up to more complicated assignments later in the week. I also realize that this is, after all, Monday morning. No time to be professorial. I make a list of common abstract terms on the blackboard – virtue, courage, truth, beauty – and explain how all of us tend to use them carelessly, without much concern for precise meaning. I then ask them to come up with some fresh, concrete definitions of these terms, using Charlie Brown’s memorable statement, “Happiness is a warm puppy,” as their model. “Happiness is a friend with a subscription to Playboy,” one fellow shouts from the corner. “Frustration is the last letter in a crossword puzzle,” hollers someone else. In a few minutes everyone in the class has contributed at least one definition. On to cliches. I cover the board with scraps of romantic gibberish taken from Valentine cards, then ask the class for some more original sentiments. “Try comparing love to something mechanical or scientific,” I suggest, and read a few lines from John Donne to get them started. Silence for a few minutes, then a slender girl, dressed in tights and a bright green wraparound coat, recites a few lines about passion being like a microwave oven. Not New Yorker material, but they break the ice. Soon another student is talking about jumper cables. Next comes a short poem about love as an elevator, which unfortunately gets stuck between stanzas, followed by a more memorable effort involving windshield wipers:

We in our love connected are

As windshield wipers on a car.

Which work as one to clear the rain

Yet their individual shape retain.

Several requests for a second reading, along with some gratuitous advice about improving the rhyme. If not poets, at least self-starters, I think to myself.

“Is this what professional writers do?” one author inquires.

“All the time,” I lie, just as the bell rings.

My second class is a junior honors group made up mostly of theater students, with a few violinists and cellists thrown in for balance. Donna, the regular teacher, advises me that they’re an imaginative and aggressive group. I suggest beginning with something off-beat, like a fantasy trip. She agrees.

I tell the students to relax and close their eyes while I lead them through a fantasy about a stump, a cabin, and a stream. I read slowly so that everyone has time to imagine what it might be like to be one thing, then another. Naturally, at the end I ask a few probing “teacher’’ questions. “Which part of the fantasy was most enjoyable?” “What would you like to be most?” “A stream,’’ they say, so we start talking about streams, kinds and qualities. In the middle of what I assume is a very purposeful discussion, a tall black girl, obviously a dancer, glides to the center of the room and begins to roll and tumble like a miniature Colorado. I stare at her silently. “Don’t worry about it,” someone assures me. “She’s just from Lubbock. Never seen a river in her life.” The girl smiles and keeps on flowing for another few moments, then goes back to her seat to a scattering of applause. The impromptu mime sets the tone for the rest of the hour. I read a poem called “The Base Stealer” and several students volunteer to demonstrate how the rhythm of the poem and the movements of the player coincide. I’m anxious that things will get out of control, but then realize that acting out probably comes as naturally to them as spotting trochees does to me. Certainly no sign of the “If-this-is-educa-tion-how-come-I’m-enjoying-it?” attitude so common in many high schools.

Later, I run into the little Colorado in the cafeteria line. “What are we doing tomorrow?” she asks. I mention trying a few haiku, maybe a villanelle. “I write a lot of poetry,” she tells me. “I wrote two hundred lines about my grandfather once. My teacher says it’s very good. I’ll show it to you.”

Instinctively, I look around for a “teacher’s table.” Seeing none, I sit down with a group of students, some of whom I recognize from first period. Between bites of mystery meat (some things never change), I ask them why they’ve come to the Arts Magnet School. The word “freedom” comes up frequently. No dress code, no compulsory pep rallies, lots of individual instruction. One girl explains that she has always wanted to be a flautist but in the past her only outlet had been the marching band. “I hate football and got tired of freezing to death on Friday nights, so I came here. I feel less isolated.” Her friend, a theater major, agrees. “The teachers here are trying to help me do what I want to do instead of making me jump through hoops.” Generally speaking, there’s a “born again” enthusiasm in these student endorsements. Many of them have been badly served by traditional programs and have come to the Arts Magnet for a fresh start.

Whether the school can live up to these expectations depends on how successfully it gets over its growing pains. The Arts Magnet opened its doors in September, 1976, barely four months after Judge Taylor’s final desegregation order to the DISD. Like the other magnet schools, the Arts Magnet was set up as a means of achieving racial balance without forced busing. If a school can provide a distinctive, high-quality program, the thinking went, then students will go there voluntarily if the school is located in a socially neutral area like downtown.

So far, this approach has been only partially successful. Enrollments at the Business Magnet Center and the Transportation Institute, for example, continue to run between 70 and 80 percent minority, a situation that has forced the DISD to limit the number of blacks admitted. The mix at the Arts Magnet is considerably better, approximately 55 percent black and Chicano, 45 percent Anglo, although the dance cluster is currently over 70 percent black. Presently, the only entrance requirement at the Arts Magnet is an interest in the arts; students are assigned to different classes on the basis of ability and previous experience. Not everyone is happy with this policy. A number of gifted musicians are transferring to conventional high schools because they feel they are being held back by slower students, while a number of instructors in the arts clusters feel that a lack of auditions puts them at a disadvantage in developing performers. If and when the school reaches its capacity of 900 (enrollment for the first two years has hovered around 750), some type of screening process will undoubtedly be initiated, though not necessarily with great enthusiasm on the part of the DISD.

“You don’t want to deny students their preferences,” explains Dr. Francis Chase, former Dean of the Graduate School of Education at The University of Chicago and one of the architects of the DISD Magnet School Program. “In many cases they are simply taking advantage of opportunities they haven’t had before, which is what the program is designed to do. Ultimately, the way to achieve a good racial mix is to upgrade the programs in the ’home’ schools, so that students who really want to pursue a career will have a place to go and those who simply want to pick up extra skills, typing or shorthand, let’s say, can remain at their home schools.

Easier said than done, at least in the case of the Arts Magnet School. In the past, principals in the comprehensive schools have tended to look on it as a threat to their own programs rather than as a community resource. At times the best interests of a student and the best interests of his school have become hopelessly tangled – some outstanding musicians, for example, have been guarded as jealously as star quarterbacks. When information about the school is available, it is frequently misleading. One star violinist tells of learning about the program, consulting his counselor, and being told flatly that if he left he’d get mixed up with all the dopers and social misfits in town. North Dallas high schools have a particularly bad reputation on this point, although the problem certainly isn’t geographical. Not long ago, a coordinator sent to Sunset High in Oak Cliff was kept outside in a downpour while school officials debated whether or not she could speak to the students. Partly as a political gesture, the heaviest recruiting is now confined to the Middle Schools. Guidance counselors and Magnet representatives conduct only low-key information sessions in the Senior High Schools. This appears to have eased tensions somewhat, although both school officials and DISD spokesmen still grit their teeth whenever the subject comes up.

A more serious problem for the Arts Magnet has been countering the charge that it is academically suspect, a red flag in this back-to-basics age. Last year, the students themselves complained about the difference in ability between the arts instructors, most of whom are also working professionals, and the academic teachers, whose experience tends to be other, more conventional, schools. The two groups reportedly eyed each other warily, the academics generally resenting the amount of press the arts faculty was getting while they labored in the shadows. School officials acknowledge that there were problems, but insist that most of them arose from starting a new school on short notice.

“When your car has a flat you fix it first,” says James Gray, one of the principals. “The tune-up and paint job have to wait. That’s what happened here. We worked hard on the ’arts’ clusters and probably took the academic side of things for granted. We figured we know how to teach basic algebra, in other words, but weren’t so sure about modern dance.”

This year more courses have been added to a weak science curriculum, and the full-time staff has been expanded to 34, including one Ph.D. in literature. But more has to be done. In the first place, not everyone with a teaching certificate and 12 hours of life drawing belongs at a school like the Arts Magnet. It takes a certain kind of person with certain kinds of skills. “You have to be imaginative, uninhibited, maybe a bit eccentric,” says one coordinator. “You certainly can’t just pull your specialty up around your ears and pretend that nothing else exists.” Considering what goes on these days in most Schools of Education, finding one such teacher is a chore. Finding enough to staff an entire school can take years.

Moreover, the “philosophical core” of the Arts Magnet program, “Integration of Abilities,” is still something of a puzzle to many teachers. The brainchild of Director Paul Baker, IA might be loosely described as a blend of Bauhaus, sensitivity training, and so-called interdisciplinary skills. Its objective, as outlined in the syllabus, is to break down some of the artificial barriers between the various art forms while at the same time expanding personal awareness and creativity. Dancers are expected to know something about theater, musicians are introduced to choreography and movement, visual artists are taught the rudiments of stage design. The goal is synthesis rather than specialization. The school also publishes an elaborate chart that contains some key art terms – space, line, texture, volume – and suggestions as to how these can be applied to history or mathematics or literature. Here’s where some of the problems arise. Connections between space in sculpture and space in dance are relatively easy to make, but as one tries to extend the concept to literature, let’s say, matters quickly get more abstract and metaphoric. Phrases such as “Literature’s space is the mind” crop up with distressing frequency. Or else one finds only blank spaces on the chart, which some teachers have said correspond to the blank spaces in their own understanding of what to do with these ideas. One went so far as to suggest that the scheme was only a flashy PR tool that was useful for securing support from DISD. It’s more accurate to say that IA seems to work well in clusters like theater, where the concepts have direct application and the individual courses are taught by personnel from the Theater Center, and less well in traditional academic disciplines, where fruitful connections are harder to make. It’s hard enough to teach The Tempest from a conventional cultural-historical perspective, which would allow for discussion of music and art, without introducing ideas like “texture” and “density” that would boggle the mind of most graduate students.

But the crucial test for the Arts Magnet School in the near future may turn out to be economic, not philosophical. Specifically, jobs. Like the other magnet schools, it is set up to provide pre-pro-fessional, career training. The simplest way to evaluate the success of such a program is to count the number of graduates who end up working in their chosen field. This is easier to do with stenographers and mechanics than with musicians and actors. The Symphony and the Theater Center are not Republic Bank or TI, and Dallas is not yet able to absorb a steady stream of budding talent. The job problem has led some people to ask why we need the Arts Magnet School at all. Can’t the comprehensive schools do the job? “The other high schools don’t give a damn about the arts except for the band,” replies one coordinator. To some extent, this is the old liberal vs. vocational education controversy all over again, breadth vs. specific skills. Unlike the other Magnet schools, however, the Arts Magnet is attempting to keep feet in both camps. ’’We’re training performers, technicians, and managers,” says Baker emphatically, “but we’re also creating good consumers of art. We’re trying to develop a market as well as serve one.’’ When pressed about jobs, Baker and others admit that it’s a “tough problem,” though they insist that more and more students are finding work in TV commercials and dinner theaters, and that there is a growing demand for groups like the lab band and the mime troupe. The challenge facing the Arts Magnet is to find or create more such opportunities without at the same time turning into just another vocational school. At the moment, no one has figured out how to do it.

When I talked to students about their job prospects, most said they were uneasy but not discouraged. As one dancer put it, “Even if I don’t end up with a professional company, the experience here has been important. I’ve been treated like an adult and given the chance to make decisions about my own education. That counts.”


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Related Content