35 years later, the Baltimore School for the Arts is still changing lives

Everybody has heard of the actor Will Smith. Most will know of his wife, the actress Jada Pinkett Smith. Some will know that she was trained at the Baltimore School for the Arts, now celebrating its 35th anniversary. She is but one of many successful actors, dancers, musicians and other arts professionals who got a start there. This is the story of how the BSA came to be.

In the fall of 1975, I was a young real estate developer who had been an aide to Mayor William Donald Schaefer when he appointed me president of the Board of School Commissioners. The board had just fired the city's first African-American superintendent, Roland Patterson. So began the most difficult five years of my life.


The school system (then with 135,000 students and 12,000 employees) was embroiled in fierce conflict over Mr. Patterson's efforts to redress years of racial disparity. His leadership provoked a racially charged atmosphere with both blacks and whites resigning. And however unintended, it resulted in a dumbing down of standards.

My job was to bring harmony to the board, get its meetings off TV news, find a new superintendent, create an atmosphere of cooperation and restore a sense of excellence. That's where the school for the arts came in.


Margaret Armstrong, a long time arts champion met with me to promote such a school. This idea had been kicking around the system for some time, but it had gotten nowhere.

As luck would have it, in the spring of 1976 I toured the decrepit, abandoned Alcazar Hotel in Mount Vernon to develop it for housing. The building had once been grand, with a large ballroom, stage and lovely chandelier. It was perfect for a school for the arts.

Mayor Schaefer understood immediately. It would improve the neighborhood and was a tangible building project, something he loved. So he funded it.

Still there were problems. For example, Sylvester Campbell, a renowned black ballet dancer from Baltimore, had just retired. How could he become an instructor at the school? He did not meet the standard requirements for public school teaching.

So we invented a Board of Overseers to contract with the school system. It would run the school, students would audition for admission, and artists need not be certified or join the union. Thus, a "charter school" before there was such a thing.

This unique school raised many questions. Why special rules for just one school? Isn't it elitist? What about its racial composition? How come my kid didn't get in? Such matters had to be sorted out by those who would follow.

And many others contributed to the school's success. Tony Cary, a prominent local attorney, became the first chair of the overseers. He recruited David Simon from the Manhattan School of Music to be director. Mr. Simon set a standard of excellence in both the arts and academics. Leslie Shepard then spearheaded a $30 million expansion and rehabilitation. Now the school is following new, exciting paths under the direction of Chris Ford.

Sally Michel, an exceptional volunteer, organized "Expressions," a fundraiser to showcase students and provide funds for extra support. This spawned a foundation which now provides a third of the school's funding.


Most importantly, what about the graduates? They show in New York's Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. They perform on Broadway, in the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe, in the Baltimore Symphony, and they play jazz in the U.S. and Europe. They do television, movies, casting, advertising, designing, conducting, teaching and lots and lots more.

With its free after-school and Saturday program for city 2nd to 8th graders and its high school, the BSA educates 1,000 students each week. So after 35 years the Baltimore School for the Arts is still a place where artistic stars shine and kids' lives are changed.

Mark K. Joseph is the Founding Chair of The Shelter Group. He was president of the Board of School Commissioners from 1975 to 1980. His email is