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On 25th anniversary, city's School of the Arts shines


IN THE public high schools of the city of Baltimore, where the proudest boast is that most students drop out before they become felons, it is beautiful to arrive at the School for the Arts. The school turns the education process into poetry. Also into this remarkable thing -- almost unheard of in the modern era -- called human thought.

Such as a recent morning in the school's Cab Calloway Music Room. A dozen kids of all colors are there, and all are barefoot. They are undulating their bodies this way and that. They strut and slip and sway. A teacher named Denise Diggs watches over them, not exactly delighted.

"I see the different dimensions," she says, "but it's got to be from the inside."

The kids are reciting a poem as they move their bodies about. It's one of Langston Hughes' works. They are saying:

Good morning, daddy!

Ain't you heard

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

"Pay attention to the language," Diggs says earnestly, stopping their action for a moment. She paces before them and points to a slender girl with blond hair.

"What does it mean?" Diggs asks.

"The daddy's like a pimp daddy," the girl says without self-consciousness.

"That's very interesting," Diggs says. "But I didn't see your body reflecting that."

"I was doing the fluctuations," the girl says, "but in an ironic way."

Excuse me? Ironic fluctuations for pimp daddies? These kids are about 16. You ask most people about ironic fluctuations, they couldn't handle such conversational locutions if you spotted them all available nouns and verbs.

But this is routine business here. The Baltimore School for the Arts, at 704 Cathedral St. in the old Alcazar Hotel, is marking its 25th anniversary this fall. It is launching a $24 million expansion project for new classrooms and laboratories, dance studios, a state-of-the-art library and computer lab, and a new physical education facility. It will increase the school from 318 to 375 students and expand its weekend TWIGS program (To Work In Gaining Skills) for elementary- and middle-school children from 600 to 800.

Also, it is using the anniversary to take stock of itself. And, as it looks in the mirror, to take a few bows as well.

The school has been called one of the top five public arts high schools in the nation by the Doris Duke and Surdna foundations. The National Endowment for the Arts named it one of the top five public arts schools in the country. The U.S. Department of Education called it a Blue Ribbon School.

Three-quarters of its students come from the city, the rest from the surrounding area. Every year, about 1,000 kids audition for entrance. Only about 10 percent are accepted.

"Not on the basis of academics," director Leslie Shephard says. "On the basis of talent. For those who need academic help, we have tutoring. But we look for talent."

And yet, the academics are impressive. The curriculum is all college prep. About 96 percent of its graduates go on to colleges and conservatories. The school's SAT verbal scores are the highest in the city over the past eight years, and its math scores are second-highest. Over the past 14 years, 98 percent of those who took Advanced Placement exams earned college credit. Last year's grads went to such institutions as the University of London, New York University, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Carnegie Mellon University and the Juilliard School.

In a time when troubled kids in Baltimore are expressing themselves by setting fires in their schools and when two brothers were shot last week outside a school named for the man, Thurgood Marshall, who helped change the course of public school history, what happens at the School for the Arts is cause for hallelujahs.

You see it in its classrooms. In one, a teacher named Mark Hardy leads about 50 kids in singing "The Magnificat." The kids take this battered old hotel ballroom and turn it into a cathedral. In another room, ballet instructor Debra Deckelbaum gently leads her students into moves they didn't suspect they could perform.

But there's the same feel in the academic classrooms, in math and science and English. Nobody seems to be goofing off. Teachers don't have to struggle to be heard over a din. Students seem to be stretching their potential.

Between classes, hallway movement is quiet and calm. "We don't use bells to begin and end classes," Shephard says. "We figure everybody can tell time by now. We like to think of it as a college atmosphere."

Shephard has been here since the beginning. She strolls into a gallery where all the works -- paintings, sculpture, some wonderful stuff -- were produced by students. She looks around the room as though taking stock. But, at the quarter-century mark at the Baltimore School for the Arts, it's also a time for taking bows.

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