A future of excellence

Only one student had the panache to bop into Leslie Shepard's office at the Baltimore School for the Arts, saying something like, "Hey babe, having a good day?" That was Christian Siriano, winner of the TV reality show, "Project Runway," and now one of most exciting up and coming talents in the world of design.

How could she not love the kid? But then she loved all the kids!

And, so, as Ms. Shepard, the Baltimore School for the Arts director and one of its guiding forces since the school's inception, steps down at the end of this academic year, she will leave a legacy to match any in public education anywhere.

In 1979, the city and the Board of School Commissioners created the BSA as a "charter school" before there was such a thing. Ms. Shepard began her work, as the school's dean of arts, planning for its opening the next year, and she has been there ever since serving as director for the past 10 years.

Today the school is recognized as one of the five leading public arts high schools in the country after a grant competition by the Doris Duke and Surdna foundations.

With its recent $30 million expansion and renovation, spearheaded by the school's Board of Overseers, the BSA now serves more than 300 high school students with majors in dance, acting, theater craft, visual arts and music.

After school and on weekends, its "TWIGS" program nourishes 700 city kids, from 2nd to 8th grade, providing a pipeline for prospective students into the high school.

While students are accepted based solely on auditions in their artistic fields, their academic subjects are a prime focus. The school's test scores match any in the state. Its graduation rate is 100 percent, and more than 95 percent of BSA graduates go on to higher education in leading conservatories, colleges, universities and professional companies.

What's next for the BSA?

Surely, preserving its culture of excellence is at the top of the list, as is hiring an outstanding leader to replace Ms. Shepard through a nationwide search.

Then there must be even greater focus on academics while increasing the number of family performances to go with the school's prime, several-day spring showcase, "Expressions." Plans are in the works for an expanded and more dynamic website, establishing an alumni advisory committee and, last, but hardly least, increasing the school's endowment fund.

With stars like Jada Pinkett Smith, the actress and producer; television and film star Tracie Thoms; Broadway actor Bryan West; symphony conductor Andrew Grams; stars with the Alvin Ailey dance company and visual artists like Sara VanDerbeek, whose works are showing in MOMA and the Whitney, there will be no trouble finding notable graduates to help maintain the reputation and spirit of the school.

But as Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso is fond of pointing out, it all comes down to the students. This year's students will learn well, perform at the top and, as in past years, all will graduate.

And so will those in years to come under a new, but equally exceptional director with an engaged board and broad support from the school system and the community at large.

Yes, Leslie Shepard will leave next year, but the students will have the benefit of her legacy.

Mark K. Joseph, a real estate developer, was president of the City Board of School Commissioners from 1975 to 1980 and a founder of the Baltimore School for the Arts. His e-mail is Markjoseph1006@gmail.com.

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