Baltimore School for the Arts leader to depart at end of school year

Leslie Shepard, director of the Baltimore School for the Arts who has worked at the prestigious school since it opened, will leave her post after this academic year, officials announced Wednesday.

Shepard has been director at the school since 2001, but has worked there since its inception in 1979 and previously served as its Dean of Arts.

"It was a huge decision for me," Shepard said. "My heart and soul is with the school, and I'm just so lucky to be part of this endeavor."

The Baltimore School of the Arts is one of the most renowned public arts high schools in the nation. It has graduated notable Baltimoreans such as actress Jada Pinkett Smith and was the home to various arts scholars who have graced world-renowned stages, museums and orchestras. While the school bases its admissions on auditions, it maintains some of the best academics and student outcomes in the state.

Shepard said her decision to step down as head of the school was a long-deliberated and personal one, adding that "we've been planning historically for succession. When you've been at a school for 30 years, it's time for transition."

"Act Two," she said, will include a community-oriented or philanthropic community endeavor —one that's not a 24-hour job. For now, Shepard said, she still has a full plate working on the school's academic and performance priorities, increasing the school's endowment, building its alumni network and launching a family performance series this year.

A committee, which will include city schools CEO Andres Alonso and the school's leaders and community members, will conduct a nationwide search for a new director. A new director will be appointed by the end of the 2010-2011 school year, said Patricia Joseph, board chair of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"Leslie is going to be a hard act to follow," Joseph said. "Amazing things happened during her tenure."

Under Shepard's leadership, the school has been recognized as one of the five leading public arts high schools in the country, underwent $30 million in expansion and renovations to expand its student body, and maintained a college admission rate of 95 percent.

Among her biggest accomplishments, Joseph said, is the resource the Baltimore School for the Arts has become for the city and the cultural outlet it has been for the city's public school children.

The school's most notable community program, TWIGS, offers after-school arts programming for students in second to eighth grade and gives city children and their families access to live arts performances, serving as a pipeline for prospective scholars. The program has about 720 children in the free program, representing 140 elementary/middle schools in the city. More than one-third of this year's ninth-graders went through TWIGS.

"Leslie will be profoundly missed," Alonso said in a statement. "But in a metaphor appropriate to an arts school, there is no doubt the school will not miss a beat."

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