Monday, February 6, 2023 Feb 6, 2023
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Arts Magnet is one of the best high schools in the country, but it’s not like the one on TV. It’s not like the one you attended, either.
By Tim Allis |

Is that gum in your mouth? Are you doing Juliet with gum in your mouth? Class, it’s not a good idea to do Romeo and Juliet with gum in your mouth.

-Karon Cogdill, instructing a beginning acting class

MUCH OF THE school is familiar: dismal ceramic hallways lined with bashed-in lockers, shaggy students toting sweat-stained notebooks, an opaque-glass door marked “Principal’s Office.” Bells ring, chalk flies, and yellow buses line up 1 outside at 4:15. But a girl in a third-period 1 math class is wearing black leotards for her fourth-period ballet class. Sitting on the floor in a dim hallway, two boys who look as if they have been sent out of class for misbehaving have been sent out of class to rehearse a scene. A small group of students are walking over to nearby Ross Avenue to paint a wooden fence.

Unlike their peers at Lake Highlands and Bryan Adams, the students at Arts Magnet High School at Booker T. Washington are trying to be two things at once: students and artists, like the kids from the popular TV program Fame, set in a facsimile of New York’s High School of the Performing Arts. Arts Magnet is ceaselessly compared to Fame, which the faculty finds amusing and the students can’t stand. “We work harder than they do,” says an indignant budding ballerina. “And we don’t dance on the cafeteria tables.” They dance in a converted gymnasium.

The fact that Arts Magnet no longer has to prove itself doesn’t keep anyone there from trying. Not the teachers, not the administrators, not the students. “We learn more here,” says a student. “It’s cool.” Says a teacher, “This is a very special place.” A dance instructor says, “There’s just a real excitement when you walk into the building. You know that something important is going on.”

All the usual signs say there is. Eight and a half years after its inception, the Dallas Independent School District’s one-time desegregation tool is nothing if not a success story. The only performing-arts high school in the area, and one of only a handful in the nation, Arts Magnet combines a traditional academic curriculum with intense studies in the arts, and turns out young talent. More important, at least to its own survival, Arts Magnet turns out good grades, high SAT scores and many college-bounders -more than any other DISD school.

“I don’t think test scores are the best way of evaluating a school,” says an academic teacher. “They just don’t say that much. But in a way, we’ve been beating DISD at its own game. Our test scores have always been so high. And our students are good. It lets us do what we need to do.”

The high marks certainly don’t hurt. That’s where the awards come from. And the scholarships. And last year’s $10,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. That’s what gives Arts Magnet its support. That’s what lets the powers that be at DISD sigh and sometimes even smile. But it’s the arts that set this high school apart from others. And something else: a belief shared by the students-is it possible?-that high school should be taken seriously. “My friends said, ’Aren’t you sad you’re not a head cheerleader anymore?’ ” explains a pretty blonde sophomore who transferred into Arts Magnet this year, “and I said, ’No, I don’t miss it.’ I mean, what are you going to do? Be a cheerleader all of your life?”

There are no cheerleaders at Arts Magnet, no football team to cheer for. There are dance studios and pottery wheels and a score of pianos; a scene shop, a lighting booth and rusty sculpture in a courtyard. But by and large, the place looks like a high school, especially the outside. Dark, heavy and, from the front, perfectly symmetrical, the old Booker T. Washington resembles Every-school USA. Built downtown on Flora Street in 1923, it was Dallas’ first black high school. Later, when inner-city living all but vanished, the facility became offices of DISD. It opened its doors in 1976 as Arts Magnet-and as something of an experiment, one of four magnet schools offering specialized education. Students from the district could attend the school as an alternative to, or in addition to, attending the school of their respective zones. A social and ethnic mix might be achieved, it was hoped, out of free will and in a socially neutral area of town. The task of creating Arts Magnet was given to Paul Baker, then director of the Dallas Theater Center, whose work at Baylor and Trinity universities, as well asin the arts, fit the unusual bill.

For many years, more than half of the students at-tended Arts Magnet part time, taking their academic courses at their home schools. Today the 700 Arts Magnet students attend full time, usually taking four academic classes (such as math or science) and three arts classes (such as drawing or mime) each day. Each student belongs to one of four “clusters’-dance, music, theater or visual arts. The school is as integrated now as it was when it opened, which is to say very. While Arts Magnet still practices a policy of first-come, first-served, the school auditions and interviews applicants each spring, and many are turned away. Accepted students may be “counseled out” at any time during their four years. Cur-rently, more than 200 names occupy a waiting list to get in. Twelve percent of the enrolled students come from outside DISD, driving in from as far away as Carrollton and paying a tuition of $150 every four weeks to attend. Still, faculty members consider these measures of success almost incidental compared to successes that are harder to pin down. “The payoff,” says theater instructor Beverly Renquist, “is to see the spark of creativity flicker in the students’ eyes and in their work.” Says an academic teacher: “Arts Magnet was built to get around busing, but it’s worked in ways DISD doesn’t understand.”

“The Fame thing is pretty fictional,” says James Barrett, a gregarious senior from the music cluster with long blond hair and therelaxed demeanor of a heavy-metal rocker. “It’s not really like that. There’s a lot of work. You don’t just go out and be spontaneous and everything fells together. Even in the artistic category that you choose, whether it be music or dance or whatever, everybody has their own little rigors that they have to go through every day. The dancers have to exercise, the musicians have to do their scale work, and the artists have to, you know, mix their paints. A lot of freshmen drop out because they can’t handle the pressure. If you don’t do what’s required, they’ll get rid of you. I mean it’s like family and all that, but if you’re not doing what’s expected, they’ll cut you.”

James has the Arts Magnet look, which is not to say he’s wearing certain clothes or sporting a certain haircut. At Arts Magnet, anything goes. (“We have to wear shoes,” says a freshman boy, as though he’d rather not.) Rather, James makes sloppy look stylish, as only artists can. The students at Arts Magnet pack style like other students pack knapsacks: routinely and with little effort. Day-Glo jeans, dyed hair and tuxedo jackets fill the hallways as though MTV had sabotaged the place. One boy wore his pajamas to school. As several girls debate the question of whether some of this might be affectation, even conformity, the loudest offers an explanation: “The people who dress like that, they’ve always wanted to, but they were afraid because they thought people would make fun of them. Then they come here and they can finally do it. You can do what you want to. You can be yourself.”

“Being yourself are magic words for the students, which they repeat often. Part of the time they’re speaking of fashion, part of the time it’s something more. “Coming here changed my opinion about everything,” says a sophomore girl, another transfer student, ’because before, I was really narrow-minded, and I thought that a guy with long hair was just a hippie. When you live with preps all your life, you’re bound to be close-minded. At my old school, I was used to seeing a guy in a coat and a tie, but here the weirdest-looking people are the nicest. I think it’s helped my mom a lot, too, ’cause when I introduce her to some of my friends she kind of looks at them like I did, but when she gets to know them she really opens up.”

Arts Magnet’s artsy reputation scares some parents. Fourteen-year-old Todd, who left his mother in Nebraska and moved in with his father to attend the school, had to convince both his parents that it would be all right. “At first, my father didn’t want me to come. He was sort of hesitant because he didn’t like the idea that there were going to be gay people here. I said, ’That’s no big deal.’ I had to fight my mother to come down here, but now she’s really enthusiastic about it. She’s interested in the plays I audition for. You know, she’s excited.”

LIKE SEVERAL TEACHERS here, Louise Smith, head of the theater cluster, saw the school’s genesis. She came to Arts Magnet with Baker, who invited her. For 15 years, Smith had directed the Theater Center’s teen and children’s theater, so the task of helping to create an arts high school seemed tailor-made for her. “I’ve always had a belief about children,” she says. “I’ve always believed that they can do more. I found that at the Theater Center there were so many students who could do more if you gave them the opportunity, but at the Theater Center they could only do so much. They couldn’t run the light board; that was not allowed. They could not build complete sets; they had to work around whatever was there. Here, they do everything.”

Coordinating the theater department keeps Smith on the run-one minute overseeing a diction class, the next teaching Shakespeare, later counseling a student. A full year of plays and mime shows also demands her attention after regular school hours, since she will not allow rehearsal during class time, “Each cluster has a little bit different philosophy,” she explains. “In the theater cluster, we believe that if our students remain in the theater, they’re going to always have to have some kind of class, just to keep their skills up. We see those three hours in class as sacred, so we don’t work on big productions during that time. If they want to be in a production to further their skills, that is all done after school.” Auditions and rehearsals are held between 4:30 and 6:30, and performances are at night.

All of the Arts Magnet students may audition for shows, assuming good grades are maintained. That policy goes for all extracurricular activities at the school. Some performing groups, such as the mime troupe, require their members to keep a B average. Academics are taken very seriously at Arts Magnet. Explains Smith: “We say to the students, ’If you’ve got a problem, let us know the day it starts. If you don’t understand something in math or a concept in English, immediately go to your teacher.’ If that doesn’t work, they must come to me, or whomever their cluster coordinator is. Or they’ll go to the counselor. There’s a great deal of communication.”

ONE WALL OF Scott Davison’s second-story classroom is covered in what at first looks like graffiti but turns out to be multicolored lines from literature. “Only that day dawns,” says Thoreau, in brown, “to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Some of the seniors in Davison’s third-period English class are awake; others are still waiting for that day to dawn.

“Today I want to tell you about Romanticism,” says Davison, who looks like a camp counselor. He is a favorite teacher at Arts Magnet, and, by some accounts, a romantic. “The Romantics were revolting against empirical knowledge-knowledge gained through the senses and through the scientific method. The Romantics said, “That’s fine, but there is more. We’re dissecting everything in this age of reason, very analytically taking it apart, but we’re not putting it back together.’ ” To contrast the two periods, Davison plays a tape of two pieces of music, the first by Handel (“orderly, reasonable, rational”), the second by Beethoven. During the Handel piece, a boy in a red flannel shirt leans against the wall and closes his eyes. Another boy begins conducting, seemingly to himself. Another line on the wall, this one by William Blake, says, “The unfolding of the imagination is the only true education.”

Like Louise Smith, Davison had spent many years working at the Theater Center, and had come to Arts Magnet at the beckon of Baker. He thinks that if he weren’t teaching in this kind of an environment, he wouldn’t be teaching at all. “The classes are different day to day,” he says. “It depends on what we’re studying and on my mood, but sometimes I’ll dress up or do things. It’s like performing. It’s more demanding here; the kids expect a little more of me. And that can be sort of rough- because then you get a reputation, and everybody comes into your class and expects it to be the big performance every day, and you know you can’t do that five classes a day, five days a week.”

That his pupils are arts students makes Da-vison’s job by turns easier and harder. “’You’ve got music kids, say, and all they can think about is practice. That makes it more of a challenge for me, because then I have to really grab their attention and get them away from thinking about their concert or whatever they’re doing. But sometimes I can make correlations to their art and make them see a connection. That was Baker’s whole idea behind the school and the reason he started I.A., to show that all of this is bound together.” I.A. is Integration of Abilities, the one course every Arts Magnet student takes, usually as a freshman. It focuses on the elements of art, exposing the different clusters to one another and to their similarities. “And it is easier in that sense. I can sometimes say, ’Well, here’s something that corresponds with your own field,’ and they say, ’Yeah, I can see that,’ and they start to see literature as an art form, whereas most of them had never thought of it that way before.”

It doesn’t surprise dance instructor Jo Ann Robertson that Davison-or any other teacher-has good students. “Our academic teachers are here because this is a unique school, and because they get very good students,” she says. “The arts in general are very disciplined, and we find very lew bad students, because their focus is so clear.” What Robertson didn’t expect when she came to Arts Magnet three years ago was the students’ commitment. “They’re here because they want to be here. Even though the school is open as far as auditioning and kids coming from DISD, the kids still want to be here. Their dedication to their art at this age just blows my mind sometimes.”

Dedicated as they may be, artists-all artists-face an uphill climb. The faculty and administrators at Arts Magnet know this. “In the arts, even the most brilliant have difficulty making a living,” says Louise Smith. “And those that are on the edges…” She doesn’t have to complete the thought. Principal James Gray lays it on the line: “Everybody who comes here won’t have the opportunity to be artists. There just aren’t that many jobs out there.” Dancers have it particularly tough. A dancer’s career is short, and that’s assuming it ever takes off in the first place. “The dance world keeps you very humble because there are a thousand dancers for every job,” points out Robertson. “We make it tough on them in here because we know it’s going to be tough out there.”

MAKING IT OUT there is on many of the students’ minds, particularly in the last several years as more of them acquire agents, do commercials, take on internships, and as the school gains publicity. It’s another aspect of being a “different” school that the teachers at Arts Magnet have to contend with: the specter of Fame-the real thing, not the TV show. “Sometimes it does get a little sticky,” says Beverly Renquist, “because you see them wanting so much to be professionals. What they see in the real world is slick professionalism, but most of them don’t understand what it takes to get from, ’Hey, I’d like to be in a play’ to being on stage and being brilliant and winning a Tony award. They don’t see the steps, the process, and that’s what we’re really here to do-to help them understand the process, their specific talent, what they have to offer and how it can be marketed in the real world. Or, for those who may not want to work consistantly in the arts, to at least have a sincere appreciation and support. We as artists all need supporters. We’re dead without money and without people who appreciate what we’re doing.” Says Smith, “At times I think we coddle them too much, but it’s because we recognize that they are in high school, that they are young.”

“Me’ve got to expect perfection,’’ says Karon Cogdill, “but then turn around and be satisfied with the best they can give.”

The best they can give is often very good indeed. Each cluster boasts rosters of awards and distinctions. Winning streaks on television’s Whiz Quiz, a large metal sculpture downtown, “best-everything” awards in band and other music competitions. Also, teachers proudly point to former students who are successfully working in their chosen fields, such as a recently graduated young man who is dancing with the distinguished Alvin Ailey company. And attention begets more attention. “People visit the school all the time,” says Barrett. “Movie stars, talent scouts, dance companies, a flamenco guitarist who’s renowned throughout the nation-everybody comes here. I talked to Eric Clapton about six months ago, and he said he was going to come by here on his next tour.”

The brightest tokens of pride come from the students themselves. They speak enthusiastically of hard work and the importance of supporting one another. They claim that cliques are not the rule at Arts Magnet. And they talk about the importance of being yourself, even if yourself is different. “I feel so lucky to be here,” says a girl with spiky black hair and jangling bracelets. “I mean, this is the best thing that’s happened to me, it really is. I regret not going here the first year. We don’t have fighting or anything. Everybody accepts everybody. At South Garland you act one way, look one way, do one thing. You’re a football player or you’re a cheerleader or you’re a little prep, and you try to be that. And if you’re not, you’re a BQ-a band queer. Or you’re theater and you’re a theater queer. You’re just totally out of it. It’s not like that here. But it’s work. If you don’t bust your butt and prove you want to be here, you’re out.”

Some may wonder if a school that places such demands on its students allows them to be young. “No matter what,” says Davison, “they’re still high school students.” Listening to the clamor in the caffeteria or to a freshman girl going on about the new haircut of a senior she has a crush on, it seems so. “They’re very much just kids,” says Olene Brame, chairman of the math and science department. “Kids with a little more outlook on life, but kids.” This reporter was stopped by a lively young man who had seen him in the halls and thought the might be a new student. “I was gonna walk up and say welcome to Arts Magnet, but someone said, ’No, he’s a grown-up.’ “

THE JUNIORS AND seniors in Karon Cogdill’s mime class are working this morn-ing. Not with the big smiles and razzle-dazzle moves of their TV counterparts, but patiently, methodically and with some strain. They are doing a warm-up in front of a long mirrored wall, executing head rolls, spine rolls, stretches. They seem to be getting little inspiration from the music on the record player. They don’t seem to notice it at all, in fact. Is it an “in” joke, or are. they oblivious to the theme from Fame?