Elitist? Or an Urban School That Works?

This Sunday, the Denver Post had a front page story headlined “Elite or Elitist: Framework of prestigious Denver School of the Arts getting mixed reviews.”

I asked my 17-year-old son, who is a junior at the Denver School of the Arts, whether the school was elite or elitist. He answered, “Sometimes one, sometimes the other.”These stories looking at the “stark reality” of DSA crop up every year or so. The school is dedicated, as the name implies, to students interested in the arts, which is pretty broadly defined. You can major in orchestra — my son Carl is violinist — or stage design; dance or video; visual arts or creative writing; acting, sculpture, painting … and so on. The school tries to produce students who not only are proficient in an art form, but who will develop a lifelong appreciation of “the arts” (that should probably be “The Arts”) in all their many forms.

The “mixed reviews” in the headlines concern the racial and income diversity at the school. You don’t have to be a Denver resident to attend. Prospective students have to audition in the art form they want to major in.

According to the Post story, twelve percent of DSA’s students are from poor households; districtwide in Denver 65 percent of the students are poor. Thirty-five percent of DSA students are from a racial minority; 76 percent are minorities overall in Denver schools.

One thing that isn’t a “mixed review” is the academic status of the school. It consistently ranks among the best in the state — and its ranking improves every year. As for its arts programs, they have a national, even international, reputation. Last year, the DSA orchestra played to a sold-out house at Smolny Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. Students have performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington,D.C., at the Boettcher Concert Hall, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin — and those are just the ones that I happen to know about.

About three times as many students audition for admission to DSA as there are places. It isn’t mentioned in the Post story, but fewer minority students audition for admission than their representation in city percentages, and the school accepts a higher percentage of those that do audition. I know from personal experience that the head of the orchestra department for a couple of years made sure places were available for every student who auditioned, accepted one or two with virtually no musical experience, then made sure they got free private lessons for their chosen instrument.

DSA isn’t perfect. But what we have here is an urban public school that works. The students — regardless of race or income level — are motivated not only in their art, but in their academic work. Considering all the handwringing, research and no-child-left-behind angst that is expended over education nowadays, one can only wonder why, instead of getting “mixed reviews,” the DSA model is not enthusiastically emulated.

If there are three times as many committed artists as DSA can handle, why aren’t there two more arts schools? There a couple of other magnet schools in the district, but they seldom receive the same kind of scrutiny that DSA does, perhaps because no one has to audition for a spot in a science, engineering or international affairs program.

But why stop there? DSA has no sports teams. But since sports seems to motivate so many kids, why not have specialized sporting academies that insist that if students want to participate, they have to make major academic progress. You’ve got, say, a school that specializes in basketball, but requires that players have to have not just an indifferent C average but a B-plus (or whatever). You could have a football school, a fencing school, a soccer school. Maybe kids are motivated by a chess school, a politics school, a business school, or a pre-premed program. How about a rock’n’roll high school — Hip Hop High?

The reason DSA succeeds is not really because of the arts, or because of their fine teachers. The teachers are fine, but teachers everywhere seem to be a pretty dedicated breed. The reason it succeeds is because the kids themselves are motivated to succeed. The school plays to that motivation, and there seems to be no reason that other kinds of schools can’t play to the same varied, intense interests of kids everywhere.

So of all this, there is one thing we can say for certain. There ought to be at least two more Denver arts schools.

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Dan Whipple

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