South arts react to arts school proposal

Sophie Downey, Features Editor

“I was ecstatic!” wrote junior Liam McLaughlin in an email, describing his reaction to the Minneapolis Public School district’s proposal to build a performing arts school mere blocks from South. “I think that arts-integrated schooling is a great and important thing to have for students to express themselves as well as grow academically.”

The Minneapolis Public School District (MPS) estimates an increase of around 3,000 students in the next five years. In a five year plan proposed in late September, MPS laid out many options for accommodating these students: renovating schools, building new programs, and opening a new performing arts school at Wilder.

While the plans for the proposed school are rather unclear, it would be an audition-only school, which would aim to draw students from all parts of the city, to reflect a diverse population.The school was proposed as a response to worries about losing students to other performing arts magnets, such as Perpich and Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA).

“It’s a set of options that we’re looking at,” said Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education clerk Richard Mammen. “The pieces of the puzzle are there, they just need to be put together.”

Almost immediately after the plan was proposed, there was backlash from the community. In an article by the Twin Cities Daily Planet detailing the events of the Area C meeting South and Southwest parents are quoted criticizing bad decisions MPS has made in the past. They suggest focusing on perfecting the programs that already exist, rather than building new schools and programs.

This sentiment is felt widely around the district, especially from students and teachers in existing arts programs. “Some of the fears that I have right away when I hear about it is that it might take away some of the resources that we are used to having, for our theater arts program, anyway,” said South High Theater director Ellen Fenster. “It also concerns me that it might attract some potential South High students.”

“We switched to neighborhood schools for a reason,” she continued. “And I wouldn’t want a performing arts school to attract South kids, and South neighborhood kids away from here at the expense of the strength and vitality of our program,” she said.

However, MPS is listening to these opinions and taking them into account. “[Existing arts programs losing resources] is an issue that has been raised everywhere we’ve been. It would be paramount, critical, to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Stan Alleyne, Chief Communications Officer for MPS.  “We want to strengthen the existing programs as well”.

Though by now there has been much discussion of the proposed performing arts school,  “I didn’t know anything about it until I read it in the plan,” stated Rebecca Gagnon, Treasurer of the Board of Education.

Fenster, too, is worried about the lack of communication between MPS, the school board, and teachers affected by the plan. “We haven’t been given a ton of clear information, so that’s what we’re pursuing right now,” she added.

According to Alleyne, the idea for the performing arts school was generated as a group effort, from the superintendent’s leadership team. Alleyne explained that the team weighed many different options, taking into account the needs of many schools. “Different high school students need different things,” he said. “The performing arts is a major learning opportunity for many of our students.”

On October 8th, South’s arts programs got the chance to display the quality of their work to two members of the school board: Mammen and Director Kim Ellison, both parents of South students. The two attended practices by South’s band, choir, orchestra, and a presentation by students from the theater department. They also sat down with band director Scott Carter, choir director Meyers, orchestra director Laurie Hippin, and several music students, to discuss plans for the future, and the pros and cons of a performing arts school.

The CEO of the Minneapolis School District, Michael Gore, also visited South to evaluate the arts program, on November 6th. He listened to practices by band and orchestra, and watched a scene from South’s latest play.

South’s music students seized the opportunity to discuss the plan on October 8th. Senior Izzy Carlson transferred from SPCPA during sophomore year, and thinks that South is a much better environment to grow as a musician. “South has more of a community focus,” she said.Carter expanded on this, stating: “Kids who are involved in the arts are special in this building, in a way they may not be special in other places.”

Both Mammen and Ellison found it useful to talk to students and teachers at South. “I was impressed with the quality of the performances, particularly the music area, and the depth of the experience,” said Mammen.

“In just my discussions I’ve had with staff, some of the things that came up were a stronger connection with the arts community in the city,” said Ellison, about the new arts school. “Students who are are diehard…they would have that type of opportunity. But my discussions with staff have also been about not to dilute anything that we’ve got going on in our schools here, but to bring back some of the students. What are we losing students to in the arts?”

McLaughlin is a former South student who transferred to Perpich this year. “The South shoe just didn’t fit,” McLaughlin explained of his decision to leave South. “I needed a place where I felt I could freely express my artistic self and be around other like minded people. South just wasn’t able to give that to me.”

“We have a thriving arts program here at South, but there are a lot of schools that don’t,” said Carter. “And would a school earmarked an arts school be a bad move for the district? Not necessarily. But until [I] know what the plan is…I’m neither for or against it.”

Members of the Board of Education visiting South was only the first step in a process to get feedback from the community. MPS held listening sessions during the area meetings, where parents and students could voice opinions.

“The community engagement side of this is going to be critical,” said Mammen.

On Tuesday, November 12, the superintendent will present the five-year plan to the school board. They will consider the implications of the plan for a month, then vote in December, according to Alleyne. They will consider all options to strengthen the arts in the district, including building the performing arts school.

However, there is still time to discuss other solutions to the increased enrollment, such as expanding existing middle and high schools, and moving students around. Board of Education director and South parent Carla Bates considers herself one of the only members of the Board who would consider redrawing zoning boundaries, as they were redrawn four years ago.

“Right now, students don’t live in the places where we have seats open,” she said. “If we change the boundaries, then that will shift all of the students over… I think it’s definitely something we should talk about.”

Carter thinks that a possible route that the district could go is instead investing more money in arts programs for elementary and middle schools. Because many K-8 schools in the district don’t currently offer music programs, “none of those students would ever be eligible to enroll in [the performing arts] school,” according to Carter.

If the Board does vote to pass the plan, there will be much more discussion on the specifics of creating a new performing arts school. “It’s going to take a lot of work to get there,” said Alleyne.