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In Washington County, arts get a second chance

March 17, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Hagerstown developer Vincent Groh's donation of the old Henry's Theater building for use a magnet school for the arts is just the beginning of what it will take to make that dream come true. The bad news is that it's probably at least three years away. The good news is that wheels are already in motion.

School officials met with members of the business and arts community on the project this week, but the official spearheading the project emphasized that the details aren't set in stone yet.

In an interview this week, Roger Giles, director of funded and special programs for the Washington County school system, told me that the first steps include forming a steering committee to develop a strategy for rehabilitating the building and fund-raising.

The latter is probably the most important, because the model of the Hagerstown project, the Baltimore School for the Arts, operates in part on funds earned through an endowment fund.

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The Baltimore School "is definitely the model," Giles said, adding that it's been rated one of the top five such schools in the country. Students are admitted based on either the submission of a portfolio or doing a recital, Giles said.

But the school is also a top academic institution as well, Giles said, and its students' SAT average is one of the highest in Baltimore.

Those who attend are required to take courses to put them on a track for admission to colleges in the University System of Maryland, Giles said. That includes foreign language study and at least two algebra courses, he said.

Based on discussion at the Wednesday meeting, the school would admit eleventh and twelfth graders, in part because the theater building has only 20,000 square feet of useable space. However, school officials said it would probably be expanded to add an elevator tower to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Doing the fund-raising, planning programs and working out things like how students will be transported in and out of the downtown area will probably take about three years, Giles said.

In the meantime, students now in the system will be prepared for the high school program in places like Fountaindale Elementary School, which became a magnet school of the arts this year.

Plans to add a second arts-related elementary school are in the works, Giles said, with Emma K. Doub School the next on the list.

Giles said those schools will function as "feeders" for the School for the Arts in the same way that Northern Middle School now functions as a feeder for North High.

But even if your child is not yet in a school with a special curriculum, Giles said there will be plenty of opportunities for art education.

Other special art programs will be added soon at many schools, Giles said, noting that this year a special dance class began this year at South Hagerstown High School, as well as a ceramics and sculpture class at the Washington County Technical High School.

If you love the arts and want to contribute to the endowment that will be needed, stay tuned, because no decision has been made on how to accept contributions, Giles said. One possibility is the Washington County Public Schools Foundation, he said.

Maybe that would work, but why not set up a special fund with the Community Foundation of Washington County, which as of this past January, had $6 million in assets? Nobody's earning that much in the stock market, but bundling the school system's cash with those assets would have to be a better idea than starting from scratch.

Also, the idea talked about at Wednesday's meeting - shuttling students back and forth from the arts school to other schools - seems like a waste of students' time.

I suggest that Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan approach the owners of the Frostburg Center on nearby Public Square, which will be vacated when the new University Systems campus opens downtown. Perhaps another building donation can be arranged to get more classroom space.

Finally, though no one has said it yet, but the plan for the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts vindicates all those band parents who fought without success against the school system's decision to shut down elementary instrument music programs in the mid-1990s.

That program was dismantled because budgets were tight and some principals objected to students being pulled out of other classes for practice sessions. Parents argued then that research showed that the positive benefits of music study more than made up for lost class time.

It's too late for the students of the mid-1990s to benefit, but parents have won that argument now, thanks to a new superintendent who believes in the beneficial effects of arts education. If those citizens can raise money as fervently as they argued for the band program, the school for the arts will be come a reality sooner rather than later.

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