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City arts school receives big gift

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who learned her craft at the Baltimore School for the Arts before launching a successful film and television career, is donating $1 million to a major renovation and expansion campaign at the school, officials announced yesterday.

The School for the Arts, considered one of the top public arts high schools in the country, plans to name its new theater the Jada Pinkett Smith Theater. At Pinkett Smith's request, the theater will be dedicated to rapper Tupac Shakur, a former classmate who was shot and killed in 1996.

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The donation from the Baltimore-based Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation was made after Pinkett Smith was approached by her former theater teacher, Donald Hicken. The Smiths had previously given $112,500 to the school.

"It means a lot when you're a teacher and your most famous alumnus comes back to give a donation," said Hicken, head of the school's theater department since its founding in 1980. "It really says a lot to the community that the school matters in people's lives."

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Pinkett Smith's gift is the largest by a graduate in the school's history. The biggest gift in the school's current fundraising campaign came from Patricia and Mark Joseph of Baltimore, who gave $1.25 million.

Mark Joseph, a developer, was president of the city school board when the school was established, and Patricia Joseph is a member of the School for the Arts board.

When the $30 million expansion program is completed, which is scheduled for next fall, the school will increase its enrollment to 375 from 316, with significant growth in its instrumental music and stage production programs.

The school, on Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon, has also acquired an adjacent brownstone mansion, which is being renovated to provide new classroom and rehearsal space.

Nearing goal

Half of the expansion money - $15 million - is coming from the state's school construction program. The rest is being raised through private funds. The school is within $2 million of its goal.

Pinkett Smith, 35, was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Her aunt, Karen Banfield Evans, executive director of the Smith Family Foundation, said Pinkett Smith was moved by the school's advances since she graduated in 1989.

"She credits the School for the Arts for really giving her her start and was impressed by the things they've been doing and the way they've grown," Evans said. "When they came up with this [expansion campaign] and all they're doing, she felt like this is what she needed to do."

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Pinkett Smith's gift is by far the foundation's largest since its inception in 1997. The foundation usually gives about $500,000 a year, and most of its grants are for $5,000 to $25,000.

The private foundation's money comes from Pinkett Smith and her husband, Will Smith, a rapper and actor whose work includes Independence Day and Men in Black. He and the couple's 8-year-old son, Jaden, star in The Pursuit of Happyness, which is coming out Friday.

The foundation's donations focus on improving education in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where the Smiths live.

Friend of Shakur's

Evans said Pinkett Smith wanted the theater named for Shakur because of the close friendship they developed at the school. Shakur, who sold more than 5 million albums, died in 1996 after a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. He has been described as the martyr of gangsta rap.

"She knew how brilliant he was and just thought it was only fitting to dedicate it to him," Evans said.

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The expansion will add two dance studios, two science laboratories, four academic classrooms, a lecture hall, six theater practice rooms, two theater rehearsal rooms, a scene shop and the 90-seat theater that will bear Pinkett Smith's name. Labs for digital photography and music production are also being added.

The donation will also help the School for the Arts expand an after-school program for Baltimore elementary and middle school pupils, allowing it to accommodate 800 children, up from 500. The program is critical because arts programs have been cut in city schools, said Leslie Shepard, director of the School for the Arts.

The school's earliest graduates are in their 40s, and it had not received major gifts from alumni until now.

"Jada happens to be the one who has had this incredible success early enough in her career and she's in a position to give back," Shepard said. "It means so much to us that she cared about the training here and the work we do."

Best known as an actress in movies that include Ali, Collateral and the Matrix series, Pinkett Smith appeared most recently as the voice of the hippo Gloria in the animated film Madagascar. Also this year, Pinkett Smith and her heavy metal band, Wicked Wisdom, released their debut album. And, with her husband, she was the creator and producer of the UPN show All of Us.

"There wasn't anything she couldn't do," said Hicken, her former teacher. "She did choreography. She danced. She was writing raps and writing music. She really was just a bundle of talent."

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He said the donation is significant to him and the school. "For me, personally, it's very moving." he said. "I think it's so wonderful that someone who has been as successful as Jada would extend such generosity in giving back."

The National Endowment for the Arts and the Doris Duke and Surna foundations in New York have named the School for the Arts one of the top five public arts schools in the country. Its graduates go on to schools that include New York University, Cooper Union, the Chicago Art Institute, the Peabody Institute and the Juilliard School.

Dance students who gathered in the school lobby yesterday afternoon screamed in delight when told of the donation. They said the renovations will enhance the educational program, though construction makes it chaotic now.

"All you hear are drills all the time," said Christen Mitchell, a sophomore in the dance program. But, "I think the school will improve. I think we'll learn better. We'll have more studios, and we'll have more space."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com


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