Racially mixed Dallas magnet school nurtures award-winning talent

Arts Magnet High School in Dallas is one of the brightest success stories in this prospering city. Opened under a federal desegregation court order in the fall of '76, Arts Magnet is the only one of the city's seven magnet high schools to attract its prescribed quota of white and minority students every year.

Racial balance is only incidental to its major achievements, however. It's a thriving creative-arts school that turns out award-winning artists and some of Dallas's top scholars (the only other Texas school of this type is Houston's School for the Performing and Visual Arts). It's also one of those rare institutions that everyone seems to like.

''Teaching here is pure heaven,'' says choral instructor Dick Bryan, who came to the Arts Magnet High School (AMHS) in 1981 after 11 years in another Dallas school.

''There I spent half my time breaking up fights and picking up beer cans off the parking lot. I've yet to see a beer can on this lot. Here I do what I was hired to do - teach.''

His enthusiasm is shared by teachers throughout the school's academic, theater, dance, music, and visual-arts ''clusters.''

''I can't think of another job that would interest me in the least,'' dance coordinator Roseann McLaughlin Cox says. Dr. Cox, a former professional dancer and college professor, left what she calls ''the perfect job'' at North Texas State University to join the Arts Magnet staff. She says she realizes now that teaching in this old red-brick building in downtown Dallas is the ''supreme experience'' of her career. ''Nothing could get me away from this school.''

Students seem to feel the same way. Although they work hard - squeezing academic subjects into half the school day so they can concentrate on learning to make art the rest of the day - a rare spirit of dedication and love for learning is evident in even the youngest students.

Lori Swadley, a student, says: ''Sure it's hard. I spend so much time at school that sometimes I feel I live here. But I love it. You couldn't pay me to go to another school.''

Mr. Bryan believes the student who ends up at Arts Magnet is different from the average high school student.

''My last year at Kimball (another Dallas school), we performed parts of Handel's ''Messiah'' for the student body at Christmas. During the ''Hallelujah Chorus'', where audiences usually stand in reverence, the kids shouted - and even threw things at the stage.''

He recalls his astonishment when he walked into the Arts Magnet auditorium during a performance of ''The Madwoman of Chaillot.''

''That's a very hard play to understand, but the kids were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. But then, that's the kind of students we get here. They're serious about learning,'' he says.

Although the magnet program as a whole has been praised for the training it offers career-minded youngsters, it has failed to attract as many students as city officials originally planned. The seven schools - for business and management, communications, health, human services, law, transportation, and creative arts - currently draw about 5 percent of the city's high school students, far less than the proposed 15 to 20 percent.

As in other magnet programs around the country, attendance at the Dallas magnets is voluntary and free to any Dallas high school student. And each magnet is served by school buses from every area of the district.

Recruitment for most of the magnet schools has been slow, however. Dallas is a city of suburbs, and most students in grades 9 to 12 never even consider leaving their neighborhoods to attend an unfamiliar school.

The Arts Magnet is the exception. Although many still call the school Dallas's best-kept secret and administrators are trying to improve recruitment, enrollment has stayed at a healthy level since opening day. Each year brings several new kids from out of town, from out of state, and even from other countries. These students have heard about the quality art instruction offered at Arts Magnet, and they believe it's worth the move to Dallas and the out-of-district tuition charge of $800 a semester.

Among those who care about the arts, the school has gained a strong reputation. Teachers with excellent credentials stand in line to teach at the school. In addition, each art cluster has a budget for bringing in working artists to perform and teach master classes during the school year.

The result is a vital program of creative-arts instruction that stays up-to-date in each discipline. And the students reap immediate benefits.

Louise Smith, theater coordinator, is actively involved in the Dallas Theater Center, and she considers helping her AMHS students get paying jobs at this and other theaters a part of her responsibility to them. In her opinion, most of her students deserve to be treated as professionals.

''Our students here are more committed,'' she says. ''They've passed that uncomfortable stage where they want to dress, act, and think like their peers. They're stronger for it, and can get ahead faster.''

This willingness to help students outside the school as well as within is typical of the AMHS staff's concern for its charges. Dr. Doug Cornell, music coordinator, regards his job as ''half music, half making these kids into human beings capable of making it in society.''

Darrell Chambers, co-principal, says that with a student-teacher ratio of 20 to l, ''it's really unusual that a kid doesn't find someone here who has a special feeling for him, who's willing to go to bat for him with the rest of the staff.''

David Dean, a senior, says one of the most enjoyable aspects of his high school career at AMHS has been friendships with the professionals who have been his teachers.

''And even though there's that kind of closeness,'' he adds, ''they never lose their authority. But at the same time they seem to respect us.''

As successful as the Arts Magnet has been, its best years may still be ahead of it. The Dallas Museum of Art is building its new facility seven blocks west of the school, and owners of property between the two points are working on plans for the nation's first centrally located civic ''arts district.'' This proposed project would include the new Dallas Symphony Hall, an opera house, and a new facility for the Dallas Ballet, as well as the $40 million art museum - all set off by miniparks, fountains, shops, and cafes.

By sheer coincidence the Dallas Arts Magnet is sitting in the middle of the hottest art development in the country.

''This is just where we should be,'' says Dr. Jim Gray, co-principal. ''This school is a showplace for the Dallas school district. Art educators from all over the world come to see what we're doing here.''

And many want to share in the atmosphere of buzzing creativity they find at the school.

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