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Home > Past Buzz > A Renaissance in the Arts

Kevin Butler
Staff writer

Sunday, October 24, 2004 - LONG BEACH Renaissance Career Academy in Long Beach just wasn't working.

The Long Beach school district had tried to lure students with vocational programs in such fields as law enforcement and the airline industry, but the school wasn't even coming close to meeting its enrollment target.

Only 10 to 25 percent of the freshmen spots were being filled by students who had chosen to go there, said Renaissance Principal Mark Zahn. The rest went to overflow students from other schools.

"They really didn't get the opportunity to define themselves, and that's why the Career Academy was struggling," he said.

In the last two years, Renaissance has been reborn.

One can walk the halls in the afternoon and see students practicing on electronic pianos, rehearsing dance moves for "Fame," constructing three-dimensional art, finishing costume drawings, and framing video shots of a mock newscast.

Welcome to the Renaissance High School for the Arts, which now caters to talented students by offering courses such as play production, costume design, improvisational acting, video production, dance and piano3.

District officials pushed for the new arts focus with students like Marissa Ford in mind. Ford, an avid singer now working on her first pop record, wanted to attend a public performing arts high school, but the two most well-known such schools were in Santa Ana and Los Angeles.

Too far away.

Then she heard about the new Renaissance, at 235 E. Eighth St.

"I was like, no way," said her mother, Tabitha Ford. "That would be too convenient."

Now Marissa Ford is enjoying sharing her love of the arts with her equally enthusiastic peers and trying to outdo them as well.

"Everyone wants to be better than the other person at singing or dancing," she said.

And that's the kind of academic community that district officials hope to foster at the school.

"It just seemed that our kids shouldn't have to travel to Santa Ana or Los Angeles to get a complete arts experience," Zahn said.

Change of mission

Zahn has shepherded the school's transformation. He added visual and performing arts classes that became so popular , making Renaissance an arts magnet seemed a logical step.

The school changed its name and got about $1.3 million i n federal grant money to make a series of improvements, such as a state-of-the-art auditorium with digital lighting and sound, an electronic piano lab and an audio-and-visual recording studio.

Last February, the school held its first auditions, for about one-third of its freshmen class. Auditions are not required for admission.

Admission is determined by lottery, but students must also apply to one particular arts area and prepare a portfolio or performance to help administrators place them in classes with the proper level of difficulty.

Jireh Aki, a 14-year-old freshmen, says he wasn't nervous at all when he sang "God Bless America" during his audition .

"I felt really good," said the graduate of Monroe Middle School.

Aki says he is enjoying learning about dance and singing in small classes. Though only a freshmen, he landed the lead role in the school's upcoming production of the musical "Fame."

"With dance, I'm having a fun time learning how to position my body and just learning how to stretch," he said.

During a recent costume design class, students illustrated outfits for literary characters. Shanekia Grant, 17, was busy coloring her punk-rocker outfit including a green checkered skirt and green boots.

Before Renaissance began its arts focus, Grant, who wants to open a fashion boutique, had been learning about retail design in a business class. The new costume design class fits well with her efforts to start her own fashion business, she said.

"We use clothes to kind of define ourselves and pretty much express how we feel day to day," she said.

Renaissance students definitely have outlets to express themselves, through dance, art, music and theater.

During one recent afternoon, students in a 3-D art class sit working on posters expressing assigned, one-word themes, such as "tension."

Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Zamora's design attempts to show that theme by attaching a tight web of string to the inside of a thin, wooden circle literally putting tension on the circle.

But she was thinking of scrapping the design.

"It's too symmetrical," said Zamora, a senior.

In the school's dance studio, students practice routines for "Fame."

Dance teacher Linda Hurley has noticed that Renaissance's new focus attract s more ambitious and competitive student performers and artists.

"They are strong," she says. "They come with skills and they come with a definite desire to be here."

A natural place

Renaissance seemed a natural place to create a visual and performing arts school. The school is small, located near the East Village Arts District and sits next to the district's in-house television studio.

A recent video production class at that studio had Renaissance students filming a mock newscast. The director, 16-year-old Cesar Santillanes, leaned forward to watch the monitors in the studio's control room as an instructor looked on.

Prompted by the instructor, Santillanes said into his headset, "Camera One operator, you need to tighten up your shot."

The student camera operator in the studio heard the request over his headset and dutifully adjusted his shot of the student news anchor preparing to read from cue cards.

"Tape is rolling," Santillanes said, and the anchor began speaking.

The school plans to build its own television studio with its federal grant money.

Academic focus

Zahn insists that the arts aspect of the school won't overwhelm the school's focus on academics. This year, the school added two new advanced placement classes, in Spanish and environmental science, and a pre-calculus class.

"The drive was, you're not going to attract college-bound students if you are not offering courses to get them there," he said.

Caron Dooley, whose 16-year-old daughter takes dance at Renaissance, said she is impressed with the school's teachers.

Her daughter, Sarah Dooley, lacked motivation at Lakewood High School, but after she transferred to Renaissance this year, her grades have gone up and she is devoting more time to academics, she said.

"It's more attention for her and she's also motivated," Dooley said. "She wants to do better."

The commute from Long Beach to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, located at Cal Sate Los Angeles, is one reason why so few Long Beach students attend there. Only one Long Beach-area student last year applied (the student was accepted).

And competition is stiff. Last year, 600 students competed for 155 spots. At the Orange County High School of the Arts, a public charter school in Santa Ana, only two out every five applicants get in.

"It's beautiful that (Long Beach officials) are opening something up," said Ben Fonseca, community outreach coordinator with the Los Angeles school. "Because we just can't take all the kids, and it's a big demand."

Even though Renaissance fills the same need as the L.A. and Santa Ana schools, Zahn says he is not striving for a carbon-copy.

"I am not looking at emulating them," he said. "We are building something that is unique to Long Beach, based on Long Beach's unique needs and population."

Zahn says the school is trying to go beyond just offering visual and performing arts courses. It incorporates the arts into the curriculum of classes such as history and English.

"We want our academic classes to be arts-oriented," he said. "And we have an arts teacher that is going to history classes and helping that teacher talk about the art or talk about the sculpture of that particular period."

He has a vision of a school full of enthusiastic students who are passionate about arts and academics, who walk to school with their guitars on their backs and rehearse on their own.

Drama teacher Susan Thrasher says that vision is materializing.

"I expect them to love their art so much that they will be doing it in their free time," she said. "I'm starting to see a little bit of that already."

Thrasher says that "it's a joy to work with other people who want to work as well."

With the creation of the district's new arts magnet school, sharing that joy is a lot easier.

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