Racial, Economic Rift Opens At Arts High School

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2007

Whose school is it, anyway?

Is the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts the province of accomplished young dancers, actors, artists and musicians aimed at professional arts careers—or is it a place for talented but untutored youngsters, whose promise might unfold in its conservatory atmosphere?

The question has transformed a parochial dispute over a teacher’s competence into a bitter public feud that touches on questions of race, privilege and opportunity.

In the process, it has unmasked agonizing racial and economic divisions on a campus struggling to balance a vision of pure artistic excellence with the value of ethnic diversity.

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At its center is Lois Hunter, head of the school’s dance and theater departments. Her backers say the longtime educator is a passionate advocate for underprivileged kids. Her detractors consider her an arrogant pawn of a tone-deaf county bureaucracy.

Hunter’s critics say her mismanagement of the two departments has driven out good teachers, jeopardized students’ futures and alienated the school’s visiting corps of professional actors and dancers. For months leading up to last weekend’s graduation ceremonies, they pilloried Hunter in public, circulating a thick dossier of complaints and criticizing her at meetings of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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Hunter is “horribly under-qualified … consistently arrogant, dismissive [and] rude to visiting professionals,” theater parent Steven Whitney wrote in the 500-page file assembled by leaders of the parent fundraising group, Friends of Arts High, which donates more than $100,000 to the school each year. They say school officials ignored their complaints for months.

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At meetings, parents were “like a screaming mob,” said “concerned” parent Jackie Monkarsh. “I’ve never seen something so disturbing…. Children were yelled at. Parents started to cry. It was horrible.”

Hunter declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an e-mailed statement she attributed the complaints to a small corps of parents unhappy with her efforts to promote diversity. “Change is always difficult for a few people when their focus is on narrow, outdated thinking and actions that attempt to maintain the status quo,” she said.

That Hunter is black and most of her detractors are white has injected race into the messy debate. Her supporters call the campaign a “lynching” and accuse complaining parents of opposing Hunter because she won’t kowtow to their demands.

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“It gets tricky,” Monkarsh said. “Once you start saying ‘racism,’ white people can’t come out looking good…. This is not a race thing. This is about incompetence.”

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Some less-advantaged parents say they are treated condescendingly. Reyes said that when she took chicken with black beans—a family favorite—to the group’s potluck last year, “they wouldn’t even eat my food.”

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Gothold said he began investigating the concerns after being “inundated with e-mails and complaints” last fall, but he issued no official response. He now wishes he had addressed the brewing dispute more assertively but said he was short-staffed and overwhelmed.

His inaction infuriated parents, who upped the ante by posting a letter on the school’s website asking that Hunter be fired or reassigned. That brought a reprimand from county education officials, who kicked the parent group off campus and stopped accepting its donations.

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Arts High was created in 1985, one of the first public high schools in California to combine a rigorous academic program with professional training in art, music, theater and dance. Since then, county education officials have persistently struggled to reconcile its focus on artistic excellence with its commitment to ethnic diversity.

Its student population is now 47% white, 20% Latino, 15% Asian American and 14% black, in a county whose student population is 56% Latino and only 11% white. Despite recruiting trips to predominantly Latino middle schools and classes for students not fluent in English, Arts High still struggles to enroll Latinos.

“What [the county] wants is demographic normalization…. What we’re trying to do is preserve the integrity of the education,” said “concerned” parent Jeaninne Payne. “This was supposed to be the cream of the crop; a conservatory-type school, a springboard for kids who have already found the passion and commitment. Instead they’re turning it into a magnet.”

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“There’s an eliteness to it because you’re dealing with talent,” said Ka-Ron Brown Lehman, a professional dancer and popular instructor who was artistic director of the dance department but left the school on medical leave this year after run-ins with Hunter.

{snip}years”—said the selection process is colorblind.

Nevertheless, judges feel pressure to admit more Latino students, she said—”to pick students off the ‘no’ list” even if they are unprepared for the school’s rigorous curriculum.

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A private foundation—formed when the school was created to raise money to bridge the million-dollar gap between school expenses and state funding each year—pays for supplemental arts training for low-income students, to help them keep up with more privileged peers.

“I object to the idea that people equate diversity with loss of excellence,” said foundation President Marcia Hobbs.

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The foundation will fund a summer review of the school’s arts curriculum by outside experts, in response to complaints that Hunter has watered down the dance program by moving toward “commercial” techniques and away from classical forms of dance.

Hunter’s duties will be reduced; she will continue to run the theater program, but a new dance department head will be hired. Teaching hours have been increased, so classes can be smaller. The administrative staff will be beefed up to improve communication and budgeting. A facilitator has been hired to mediate disputes and improve collaboration between groups on campus. And a new principal is being sought to replace Gothold, who has resigned to take an administrative position in the Montebello Unified School District.

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hunter

Lois Hunter.

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