'Trying Out' For School

In that brief lull last week between the time Mark McGwire broke the record and Kenneth Starr released his report, there was some time to explore important stories a little closer to home, like the first day of school.

Take the high-energy opening of the brand new Boston Arts Academy, for example, which swung into action the morning after home-run No. 62.

Here's a school where the theater director is so good she could animate a brick wall. It's a place where the "food lady," as she calls herself, plans to ask the kids what they'd like to have for lunch, and the language teacher announces that students will be performing "Grease" - in Spanish.

At a morning assembly, inner-city teens were wowed when they heard that 500 people had applied to teach them. And it was the high school's staff of two dozenish who raised their hands when a speaker asked if anyone was nervous.

"I've been longing for this moment - to finally be with the students," says Rosalind Thomas-Clark, the dynamic British thea- ter director, after putting a group of ninth-graders through a workout. "If you feel silly doing this, you shouldn't be in this course," the veteran told the theater majors as she skillfully got them to make eye contact and project their voices during a name game.

All the school's 160 ninth- and 10th-graders had to audition before they were admitted to this school for the visual and performing arts. Marvin Bynoe had to draw. Nancy Brando had to dance. Yana Palyey, who just moved to Boston from Ukraine, played the violin. Grades weren't the focus, but talent and potential were. Teens also had to write essays and submit references.

And the sweating's just begun. These kids have to go to school an hour longer than their counterparts at other Boston public schools. Experienced headmaster (actor/director/playwright) Linda Nathan knows it takes that long to get the job of educating them done. But BAA, where there are no bells and no tests, is poised to give as much as it takes.

"It's going to be real cool," said student Amos Marrero after his first day. Classmate Nancy talked about her love of dance, her struggle with grades, and how she thinks BAA will help her be less bored in school. "At least now there's something in between [academic classes] to enjoy and have fun with."

From conception to finish, BAA has been some 20 years in the making. One of its most recent hurdles was finding a suitable building - a task that delayed its scheduled opening last year.

Other major American cities have had similar types of schools for years, so Boston is bringing up the rear. But better late than never. Choice is hardly a bad thing, and that's what students whose calling is the arts now have. Even those who aren't sure yet can now explore a wider range of options.

The best part is, the students like it. Advisers asked them how they felt after Day 1. A few were tired, but many more used words like "excited, anxious, happy, exhilarated, energized."

When was the last time you heard school described like that?

* Kim Campbell is the assistant Learning editor. E-mail comments to: campbellk@csps.com

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