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Striving for 'Fame' : Students' Dreams of Stardom Are Recruiter's Lure for New Academy of Music

March 19, 1987|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

In a room packed with students at Webster Junior High School, James G. Berk, director of Hamilton High School's newly formed Academy of Music, knew just the right words to capture the imagination of his young audience.

"I have come here to talk to you about a unique educational opportunity," he told the students. "The Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to put together a 'Fame' school on the West Coast, and you have a chance to be a part of it."

The reference to the popular movie and television series about students struggling to make it in show business while attending a performing-arts school easily catches the attention of the young audience. Berk makes the analogy at every opportunity while recruiting for the new Hamilton academy, and there have been many opportunities.

Since the beginning of the year, he has traveled more than 1,200 miles to 58 of the district's 71 junior high schools--from Griffith Junior High School on the Eastside to Hale Junior High School in Woodland Hills, from Dana Junior High in San Pedro to Mark Twain Junior High on the Westside.

And so far, he said, the district has received 2,500 requests from students for applications to the academy, which opens in September with space for 630 students. The deadline to apply for music academy or any of the district's other magnet programs is March 27.

The number of inquiries prompted school board member Alan Gershman to proclaim the newly formed magnet a success.

"I think it is fair to say that the Hamilton Academy of Music has struck a cord," he said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education selected Hamilton High School as the site for the new magnet program because it has a low enrollment and efforts to maintain its ethnic balance have not been successful. Eighty-one percent of Hamilton's students are minorities.

The school's location on Robertson Boulevard near the Santa Monica Freeway is also considered ideal for students who ride the bus to school.

Carol Turley, a parent who has encouraged other neighborhood parents to send their children to Hamilton rather than to private schools, said her children plan to attend the school.

"What I have seen is a general excitement in the community about the new magnet," she said. "Some parents are talking about taking their children out of private school to become part of the program."

The board allocated $140,000 for the program to convert several industrial-shop rooms to music labs and to renovate the school's 900-seat auditorium. The district also plans to hire eight additional teachers for the academy.

The academy will offer a variety of courses, including music history, theory and harmony. Students will receive specialized instruction in voice, instrument and musical theater. They will perform the classics, jazz, pop and rock music.

Because of the concentration on music courses, academy students will take an extra class each day to complete graduation requirements. Students will attend school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"The extra class each day will mean that by the time each student graduates, he will have 80 additional credits," Berk said.

Academic Preparation

Students in the music program will take their other required classes in the regular high school program, which has 1,200 students. Hamilton also offers a humanities magnet for 250 students specializing in literature, art, music, history and language.

"It is no good if you are prepared musically and not academically," Berk told a group of students at Webster.

That idea appealed to Erika Hunt, a 15-year-old ninth-grader who plays the drums, the flute and likes to sing.

"It sounds like a great school," she said. "I hope I am accepted because I really want to go to a school that specializes in music. I want to sing like Whitney Houston."

But even with an excellent voice, the chances of getting into the academy are slim.

No Auditions

New York City's well-known High School of Performing Arts, which inspired the movie, "Fame," holds auditions. But in Los Angeles, students will be randomly selected for the academy by a computer in the district's integration office.

Last year, more than 25,000 students applied for admission to the district's 86 specialized magnet schools. Seven-thousand were accepted.

"The applications will all come in, they are computerized and the students will be selected based upon the space available and ethnicity," said Theodore Alexander Jr., assistant superintendent of student integration options. "The talent element will also be considered, but magnets were developed in Los Angeles for the purposes of integration."

Berk said the school will not hold auditions, but he plans to interview applicants before the computer makes its selections.

"We will talk to the students and to determine if our school represents the best opportunity for them," he said.

Demonstration Requested

During the interview, he said, students will be ask to demonstrate their skills.

Officials from two other magnet schools will watch the selection process.

Jerry Melton, coordinator-director for Hollywood High School's Performing Arts Center, said his program also would like to conduct pre-selection interviews. "If Hamilton is able to establish a precedent, we will probably be given that opportunity too," he said.

The Hollywood High center has an enrollment of 230 students who specialize in dance and drama. Van Nuys High School operates another performing arts magnet for 340 students.

"We are not looking to try to hand-pick the nine best musicians, though some of the best will apply," said school board member Jackie Goldberg. "Most of those who apply will go because they just love music."

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