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Houston's high school for the arts.

Art and academics now blend smoothly at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). In 1971 Houston Independent School District created the first public performing arts high school outside of New York City, and what began as an experiment in arts education and integration blossomed into a prototype for magnet schools throughout the United States and Canada.

Standards here are high, artistically and academically; creativity, discipline, and self-expression are encouraged in both students and faculty. Student admission is based on artistic talent rather than test scores. Best of all, it's tuition-free to students living in Houston Independent School District; some families have moved here just so their children could attend HSPVA.

"I started out at a regular high school," remembers Kristin Walker, a junior, "but I was so into dance--and I knew lots of people here--so I came in as a sophomore. People here are into what I like, so I feel comfortable. I knew it would keep me motivated academically and artistically."

HSPVA is the first school in the Southwest to combine academic instruction with intensive, highly specialized professional training in dance, music, theater, and visual arts; its advanced curriculum far exceeds the state's basic requirements. All students take three hours of arts classes each day. For the 100 dance students, this means two daily technique classes taught by one of the nine-member dance faculty. Ballet and modern dance are the core techniques, but there are courses offered in jazz, musical theater, dance composition, tap, choreography, dance repertory, dance production, and dance photography.

"The training opportunities are incredible," says eleventh-grader Aaron Walter. "We pay $50 a year for master classes and there are guest teachers all the time in a variety of styles. I've really grown a lot technically over the past two years." Guest artists in the past have included Agnes de Mille, Arthur Mitchell, Paul Taylor, Bella Lewitzky, Gus Giordano, Jose Greco, and Melissa Hayden. Dance companies such as American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, White Oak Dance Project, Martha Graham Dance Company, and Ballet Folklorico de Mexico also have offered master classes and lecture-demonstrations.

The program's goal is to prepare students for a professional careers in dance or for entrance into university or conservatory dance programs--and it succeeds.

"Our students graduate into professional companies and leading universities," says LuAnne Carter, coordinator of the dance department. "Some of our dancers have gone into Broadway musicals, some can be seen as leading actors in television soap operas, and, frankly, they are successful in a variety of professions."

Professional companies, such as American Ballet Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, include HSPVA graduates in their ranks, as do the casts of such Broadway productions as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Graduates receive job offers and generous scholarships from companies and colleges throughout North America and abroad. More than fifteen major university dance programs routinely recruit at HSPVA.

"Our objective is to produce versatile, open-minded dancers," says Carter. "We provide ample performance opportunities and a variety of repertory."

The department produces four concerts a year, and each show has at least two guest choreographers so that students learn original work. The award-winning HSPVA Concert Dancers, a student company under Carter's direction, also tours off campus, in recent years to Scotland and England. The dance department frequently collaborates with the school's vocal, instrumental, and jazz music programs. Dancers may also participate in the annual all-school musical, which allows them opportunities to sing, act, and/or play musical instruments. Department activities take priority over outside extracurricular activities, though. Written permission is required to participate in other school projects. "Sixty percent of our students take additional dance classes at private studios and perform with local companies," says Carter. "We encourage them, so long as they can balance their school responsibilities and not suffer academically. We purposely hold all rehearsals during regular class hours (7:45 A.M. to 3:35 P.M.), knowing that students will probably go directly from school to a studio class."

Auditions are held once a year, usually in January, and more than 200 applicants compete for the twenty-five to thirty openings in the freshman class. Everyone needs passing grades, but talent is the leading admission criterion. Once they are in, students must maintain a grade point average of C in dance courses and show artistic and technical progress. Continuation in the program is not automatic; students audition again each year.

Dance students--and their parents--sign a department of dance contract that clearly outlines regulations on things such as attendance and appropriate class attire. Rules are strictly enforced.

"One of the best things here is that there is no crime. There are no locks on lockers. I can leave my backpack, go get something to eat, and everything will still be there later," marvels the seventeen-year-old Walter.

HSPVA's legacy as the first major American inner-city school to peacefully integrate has helped curb criticism about public funding for arts education and myths about racial stereotyping.

"We believe strongly in the positive value of diversity," says HSPVA counselor Lisa Pearson. "We recruit from all district middle schools and have a healthy mix, both ethnically and economically." Statistics show the school's ethnic breakdown as 54 percent Caucasian, 24 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian.

Students excel academically, taking honors and advanced placement programs, and HSPVA ranks consistently among the district's top three academic performers. The school has received the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Excellence in Arts Education and the Governor's Award for Exemplary Performance. Ninety-nine percent of HSPVA students graduate, and most are accepted into top-ranking colleges and conservatories.

"Students talented in the arts are also talented academically," Pearson says. "They tend to be disciplined and focused."

"Our dance students are often excellent scholars," reiterates Carter. She points out that HSPVA has produced more Presidential Scholars than any other arts school: four Presidential Scholars in dance and twenty-three finalists in the past seventeen years. Presidential Scholars are selected by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts-Arts Recognition and Talent Search.

"When I realized dancing was what f wanted to do, I auditioned for HSPVA," says Jocelyn Thomas. "I had never experienced so many styles before, and being here has really changed what I want to do professionally. The teachers here are very devoted; they really want you to do your best. One of the best things is that you can learn about other arts areas such as music, orchestra, visual arts, theater. It's very different here from regular high school or just studying at a dance studio."

Faculty members have also been recognized nationally. Carter received the Distinguished Teacher in the Arts award in 1994 from the White House Commission for Presidential Scholars, and was named Outstanding Dance Educator by the National Dance Association in 1991. Her predecessor, Mary Martha Lappe, founder of the HSPVA dance department, received the 1994 National Distinguished Teacher in the Arts award.

Despite the honors, HSPVA's administration takes nothing for granted. Neither do the students. Dancers know that each morning they have to be at the barre, correctly dressed in leotard and tights, ready to work. When you're a dancer, there's never time to rest on your laurels.

"I auditioned for HSPVA so that I could get more ballet training," bubbles Monica Hatter-Mayes, a sixteen-year-old tenth grader. "The extracurricular stuff is great, like the musicals, the Hispanic Heritage Play, and the Black History Month plays. What I like best is the people here--all artsy kids, of course, but a big mix of types from conservative to totally pierced. It's great!"

For more information about the HSPVA dance department, check the school's Web site at or contact LuAnne Carter, Dance Program Coordinator at HSPVA, 4001 Stanford, Houston TX 77006-4998; telephone (713) 942-1960.
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Title Annotation:High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
Author:Lomax, Sondra
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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