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District's new arts school an expensive social experiment

The campus, set to open in the fall, still doesn't have a staff, and there's debate over who should be allowed to enroll.

December 22, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg

With just nine months left before it opens, a new arts high school in downtown Los Angeles still lacks a principal, a staff, a curriculum, a permanent name and a clearly articulated plan for how students will be selected -- critical details for a school that aims to be one of the foremost arts education institutions in the United States.

Central High School No. 9 does have a completed campus, believed to be the second most expensive public high school ever built in the United States. But the very fact that it offers what may be the finest such facilities in the region has fueled a debate over the district's plan to operate it primarily as a neighborhood school, with fewer than one-quarter of its slots allotted to students citywide.

"This school is built to build the potential that exists within this community, in which we have thousands of very talented students but who lack the social capital and the access to quality arts training," said Richard Alonzo, a former art teacher who now has authority over the school as a local district superintendent. By "community," he was referring primarily to the Pico-Union area that lies just west of the school. Alonzo said the school might intentionally discourage the most talented students from outside the surrounding neighborhoods from applying, lest they hog the spotlight.

That has led some people to question whether it's fair to the wider community -- and if it makes sense from an educational standpoint -- to lavish resources on a flagship arts school that is designed primarily for one section of the city.

"I just think that L.A. Unified rushes to mediocrity," said former school board member Caprice Young, who said she thought the goal should be the highest level of performance, regardless of geography. "As a school district, we need to be honoring excellence."

Few will question whether the campus itself is capable of fostering excellence. At a cost of $232 million, it is one of the crown jewels of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

That's clear from the moment you pull into the multilevel, 300-car garage. Up a broad flight of stairs, the campus' main buildings offer three dance studios with sprung maple flooring.

A professional-quality, 950-seat theater. Music classrooms with acoustic tiling and special whiteboards designed for musical notation.

Floor-to-ceiling windows with motorized blackout shades. Ceiling-mounted projectors in every classroom, allowing teachers to display lessons from computers.

Track lighting in the hallways to illuminate student art. An outdoor atrium for firing Japanese raku pottery. And the school's centerpiece, a conical library whose dazzling interior swirls upward to an off-center skylight.

All that, and a tower that looms over the 101 Freeway like a severed limb of the Iron Giant.

But while the school is physically ready to open in the fall, key operational details remain undetermined. An executive director was hired but quit, and now the school is interviewing candidates for principal.

"I'm concerned -- I will use that word," said Ramon C. Cortines, the district's incoming superintendent. Any school needs at least a year of preparation to open successfully, he said, and a specialty arts school may need more.

Alonzo, who has a passionate vision for the school, remains upbeat and insists that any obstacles will be surmounted.

He said he is close to selecting a principal from among three finalists -- two from the East Coast and one from Southern California. And he has apparently beaten back efforts to wrest the campus from district control and turn it into a charter, a public school largely free of district supervision.

He also believes he has settled the debate over whether the campus will be a neighborhood school or one that attracts the most talented students citywide -- an issue that will define the school's identity.

In its early years, at least, 1,200 of the school's 1,700 seats will be reserved for students from the surrounding neighborhoods, primarily the low-income enclaves of Pico-Union and Chinatown, Alonzo said.

The school, whose name is up for sale for $25 million, has a complicated history that speaks to the ethnic and geographic schisms that run through L.A.'s educational politics. It sits at 450 N. Grand Ave., directly across the freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The site long served as the school district's headquarters and stands at the northern terminus of the Grand Avenue Project, a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the city's civic and cultural hub.

The campus was initially conceived as a regular comprehensive high school that would relieve overcrowding at nearby Belmont High, whose partially completed replacement campus was temporarily abandoned because the site was deemed an environmental minefield.

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