Art Attacked

Cleveland's most successful public school faces potentially crippling budget cuts.

The Unicorns, with Broken Spindles, Passage, and Restiform Bodies The Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Thursday, June 3; $10, 216-321-5588
What's wrong with this picture: John Matthews could - be one of CSA's last great success stories. - Walter  Novak
What's wrong with this picture: John Matthews could be one of CSA's last great success stories.
John Matthews graduates from a Cleveland public high school this week, packing a loaded résumé and an almost full ride to a pricey art school. As a photography "major" at the Cleveland School of the Arts, he shadowed Plain Dealer photogs and won national awards for pictures of downtown's gritty landscape. He interned at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the art museum, prepping to study industrial design at CIA, one of the Midwest's best art schools.

In a district where only 4 in 10 students even graduate, Matthews is a small victory. And it's no coincidence that he comes from a school unlike any other in the city. "I'd be an average nobody if I'd gone to my neighborhood high school," says Matthews, a Slavic Village resident. "We just get more opportunities here."

But inspiring stories like Matthews's may soon become bittersweet memories. Despite boasting the district's highest graduation rate and proficiency-test scores, CSA has been targeted for major cuts. The district's crippling $100 million budget deficit already has forced school officials to pink-slip five CSA teachers -- including the entire social studies department. It's likely that more teachers and support staff will be axed when the school board adopts its final budget on June 15; the all-city arts program, summer school, and after-school practice time may vanish as well.

"We're at bare bones right now," says Bill Viancourt, a retiring phys-ed teacher and the school's outgoing Cleveland Teachers Union rep. "It's gonna be ugly next year."

Viancourt's forecast for upcoming budget cuts at CSA is grim: five more teachers (including three who run the accelerated-reading program), three consultants, and the assistant principal. Also on the chopping block is the school's program director, who arranges transportation, field trips, and internships like those Matthews had.

For more than two decades, CSA, a grade 6-12 magnet school, has combined college prep with arts education. Kids who qualify to "major" in dance, drama, writing, visual art or music spend 80 minutes a day immersed in it. Principal Barbara Walton and her staff try to produce the next Wynton Marsalis or Tom Hanks -- as well as college-bound high school grads -- even as elected officials, from the federal level on down, seem determined to gut arts funding.

In Cleveland, as everywhere else, public resources flow to math, science, and computers, while arts funding slows to a trickle. No math or science teachers were among the 618 whacked in the April cuts; social studies, English, arts, and K-8 teachers were hardest hit. But nationwide studies show that in the classroom, students who paint landscapes and play violins outperform arts-deprived kids. Exposure to the arts also helps level the academic playing field for disadvantaged students and raises SAT scores.

CSA proves the case. Its 91 percent graduation rate dwarfs the district's abysmal 39 percent; while the district barely escaped "academic emergency" status last fall, CSA was ranked "effective," the state's second-highest rating.

The University Circle-area school thrives even though the board classifies about half its arts instructors as consultants or artists-in-residence, not teachers. "Consultants are professionals with degrees in their field who don't have an education degree and teacher certification," says a district spokesman. (Translation: CSA's consultants spent their college days sweating over symphonies and Shakespeare's plays, not teaching methods.) And they're at the top of district officials' budget-cut wish list.

John Eby, the district's arts-education director, asserts that district officials view consultants as expendable. So next fall, there may be no conductor for the school bands and no one to drill the budding ballerinas. Only one of two drama consultants will remain, spread thin among 50 aspiring thespians.

But there's hope of curbing the damage. The Friends of CSA, a nonprofit that bankrolls consultants and vital programs the district can't afford, again plans to pick up the tab for the orchestra and ceramics teacher as well as for the accompanist for voice and dance classes. Meanwhile, Richard Larrabee, superintendant of CSA, says he will fight to retain the dance, drama, and band consultants.

"Without them," Larrabee says, "we have no arts school."

Larrabee and Walton want the positions filled with pros who play in concert halls or perform at the Play House, rather than academics who haven't paid their artistic dues. "But you publish [this article], and I'll have a ton of laid-off [union] people trying to cannibalize those positions," Walton says. "I'm a mother hen trying to protect my children."

Even union-rep Viancourt voices skepticism about filling consultant positions with teachers laid off from other schools. "They are gonna have to assume pretty big profiles, and I wonder if they're ready for that."

Then there's the recommended cut in custodian overtime. If it's enacted, the school will close its doors at 2:30 p.m., eliminating after-school, evening, and weekend rehearsals and performances. Kids already juggling part-time jobs, younger-sibling care, and homework will have to hop a bus to the City Mission or Tri-C for theater and band practice.

John Matthews never considered college until two of his teachers pressed him to submit his portfolio for scholarship money. Next year, when student-teacher ratios skyrocket, and some positions are filled by underqualified candidates, students won't get the attention he received. As Matthews points out, CSA has 700 students in seven grades; his neighborhood high school has 2,000 in four. "You do the math."

Maida Barron, director of Friends of CSA, puts it this way: "The faculty here thinks about each kid and how they can make a difference in their life. They're the future of Cleveland."

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