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Performing Arts Academy a Strong Draw for Students

September 01, 1985|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

When the Academy of Performing and Visual Arts announced the beginning of classes last year, Executive Director Jack Plimpton expected "maybe 200 or 300 applications."

Instead, applications from 1,100 budding high school dancers, singers, actors, dramaturgists, painters and film makers poured in; 515 were admitted. Plimpton could not have been happier with the response.

"It showed that young people are desperately hungry for the arts to give some balance to their life," said the former high school principal who began to pursue the concept of the academy seven years ago.

The academy, based in Westwood, is operated by a consortium of 41 county school districts that contribute planning assistance and classroom space. The classes meet at 13 sites, mostly high school campuses, scattered throughout Los Angeles County.

Courses in drama, music, dance, television and film production and screen writing are offered free on Saturday mornings from October to May.

The instructors are professionals in each field. Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actor Sidney Poitier and comedian Sid Caesar were guest lecturers last year.

Larron Tate of Van Nuys High School said he enjoyed learning acting from a "real actor," an experience that his school does not offer.

"In regular school," said Tate, who won a part in a television commercial for athletic shoes last year, "when they teach you acting, it's different. It's not by a professional. My teachers (at the academy) let me go free, from the bottom of my heart, and it came off so well. . . . It was just magnificent."

The program was founded by Plimpton, formerly a high school principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District; Marie Plakos, assistant to the superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, and Linda Gibboney, director of UCLA Extension. The three began forming the concept of the academy when they saw how cutbacks resulting from Proposition 13, the constitutional amendment passed in 1978 limiting property taxes, were affecting school arts programs.

"Arts courses were virtually nonexistent after Proposition 13," Plakos said.

Search for Funds

Two years ago, the educators decided to seek state funding for a program that would help fill the gap yet not compete with the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, which was also being planned and will open in September.

They won a $500,000 grant from the California Department of Education, part of a $2-million fund for specialized high school programs authorized by the 1983 school reform and financing law.

However, the academy's start-up money has run out, and the school needs to find a stable source of financing.

Because of its structure, the academy cannot rely on funding through the normal state channels open to full-time comprehensive high schools. Public schools, including the new county arts high school, receive the bulk of their funding from the state through calculations based on average daily attendance. The academy does not qualify for that funding because it operates after school hours and only on weekends.

To address the problem, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) has authored a measure that would provide $450,000 to cover most of the academy's operating expenses during the 1985-86 school year. It also asks the Legislature to earmark a full year's funding of $900,000 in the 1986-87 budget.

Governor Opposes Bill

The bill was approved by a 25-6 vote in the Senate in July and is expected to pass the Assembly later this month. However, it faces a tough opponent: the governor.

Bill Cunningham, Gov. Deukmejian's adviser on education issues, said the governor supports specialized programs such as the academy but does not want to spend more than the $2 million already provided in the school reform law. "There is a limited amount of money, not just for education," Cunningham said, "but for everything."

Without the special state funding, Plimpton said, the academy would be forced to pare down this year's enrollment from a projected 800 to 400 at most.

"The attitude is that this is a frill," Plimpton said. "But I think the arts are very important in the development of young people."

The academy is seeking financing at a time when support for arts education appears to be mounting. The county high school, five years in the making, will be launched on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, with the aid of a $325,000 start-up grant from the same school reform fund that financed the academy. In addition, a proposal to create a state summer school of the arts is making its way through the Legislature.

A bill authored by state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) would appropriate $1.1 million over three years to establish a four- to six-week summer arts camp for talented high school students similar to programs already in effect in North Carolina and New York. The proposal is supported by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, actor Henry Winkler and MGM-UA Entertainment Co. Chairman Frank Rothman.

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