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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

Out of Controversy, a Magnet for Learning

County's first magnet high school, for performing arts and technology, is winning over those who raged against its establishment.

May 07, 2000|BEVERLY KELLEY | Beverly Kelley teaches in the communication department at California Lutheran University. Address e-mail to kelley@clunet.edu

Despite bruising community debate, Santa Susana High School opened its newly painted doors Sept. 5, 1996. The magnet school, Ventura County's first, was proposed two years earlier when Simi Valley Unified School District was considering shifting from three-year to four-year high schools.

Confounding critics who predicted there would be scant interest in the performing arts and technology, 803 students succumbed to the magnetic pull of school choice and were drawn to the former Sequoia Junior High School campus.

Still, there was much more to do. Extensive damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake had to be repaired before an erstwhile home economics classroom could be transformed into a science lab and a sheet-metal workshop morphed into a black-box theater. To save a few bucks ($20,000 to $30,000), school staff built 100 computers from the ground up.

Both of my sons had attended Sequoia Junior High several years earlier. My failure to persuade the principal to institute zero tolerance for bullying drove us to private schools. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I walked the halls of Santa Susana High last week during passing period. I found no candy wrappers thrown carelessly on the grass, no loud conversations liberally sprinkled with four-letter words, no marauding thugs throwing around some hapless victim's backpack.

What I discovered was a feeling of community and--you're not going to believe this--serenity. Although the students may have eyed this alien adult with certain degree of suspicion, they were unfailingly polite. When I mentioned this unexpected pleasure to Principal Pat Hauser, she said, "We really work at that."

Remember "Fame," the movie and TV series set at New York's High School of the Performing Arts? Well, this school is definitely not it. Although that "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" energy level is just as present as when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland trod the boards, most of the students I interviewed expressed a preference for travailing as techies rather than strutting around as stars. Actually, they come by that quite honestly; an inordinate number of Simi Valley residents head over the hill each day to labor behind the scenes in the entertainment industry.

Santa Susana more closely resembles McKinley High on "Freaks and Geeks," where a tallish air guitarist nurtures a magnificent obsession for Led Zeppelin and where a diminutive Trekker scans the cafeteria and announces to no one in particular: "I'm so hungry I could eat a Tribble."

That critically acclaimed (albeit short-lived) television show was not for everyone, and neither is Santa Susana High School. There are no jocks and cheerleaders at Santa Susana, because there are no sports. Hauser confesses, from the teachers on down, nearly all of us "are nerds."

The Greeks never bothered to find separate words to differentiate between technology and the arts. The synergy between the two has never been more pronounced than now. Perhaps that, in addition to the small size (at 1,000, its enrollment is about 40% of Simi Valley or Royal high schools') and the fact that this school brings together a critical mass of the not-ready-for-"90210" types accounts for the friendly family atmosphere.

The instructors are not only hard-working, innovative and willing to explore new ideas but they also competed to get here. Artist Deni Byrnes is thrilled to realize a dream she says she abandoned when she was told that animation was no field for females. She bubbles over with enthusiasm as she talks about what the future holds for her students. Karen Giles, who teaches tap, ballet and jazz dance, was hijacked from a private studio. I found her advanced students leading beginners (of various shapes and sizes) through intricate choreography. No one paid any attention to the clock.

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What really galvanized the campus that day, however, was the action in the video studio. Radio station KROQ had promised to donate $10,000 to the school that completed a scavenger hunt requiring (among other items) 500 student signatures, 182 snapshots of KROQ bumper stickers, 1,067 pounds of canned food and, the piece de resistance, a tape of the high school principal singing Blink 182's big hit, "All the Small Things."

Video teacher Anne Frankl documented the momentous event. Twenty head-banging choir members (off microphone) warbled along for moral support, a home-grown punk band red-lined its amplifiers thrashing out the accompaniment, a trio of pseudo-streakers strolled by for comic relief and Hauser attempted to get through the humiliating experience with some remnant of dignity intact.

To say this good sport is somewhat intonation-challenged is being kind; Hauser invariably landed in the cracks between the piano keys. That, however, didn't stop her backup singers from cheering her on with the occasional "We love you, Mrs. Hauser!"

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