MAXWELL:  Decay eats at heart of arts magnet

5/10/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“I was so ashamed,” a student said.

“It was, like, humiliating,” another said.

“We shouldn’t have to go around begging like that,” yet another said.

These students, all 17 years old, attend Dillard High School as members of the performing arts magnet program. They are talking about the recent embarrassment of having to pass a hat to raise money for a performance.

Established in 1976, Dillard is Broward County’s only magnet arts high school. Magnet schools enroll students from outside the regular attendance zone. Dillard draws students from across the county.

But being the only game in town has not brought fortune to this predominantly black campus in an all-black sector of northwest Fort Lauderdale. Unlike its upscale sister in Palm Beach County, the Dreyfoos School of the Arts _ where an arts patron has donated $1-million and where a foundation gives $300,000 annually _ Dillard is cash-starved. No wealthy patrons are writing checks here.

Worst of all, Dillard’s magnet is afflicted with a deep inferiority complex resulting from the district’s gross neglect and because the traditional school cannot shake the image of being an incubator of star athletes.

“It all adds up to a negative perception,” said a teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. “A lot of people want to see the arts magnet fail so that it can be put in a white part of town. Why do you think they have let everything fall apart?”

And things certainly have fallen apart. The auditorium, a showcase at other area magnets, is rotting. The orchestra pit is boarded up, and foul-smelling water, with trash floating in it, stands in pools beneath the stage for weeks after heavy rains. Stage lights do not work, broken seats are taped up and the odor of mildew hangs heavily in the air. Several teachers said that the mildew has caused severe respiratory problems in some students and staff.

“Decay best describes the situation here,” said principal John D. Kelly, who, like others, has tried for years to persuade the district to renovate the arts facilities or build new ones. As early as 1991, members of an accreditation team reporting on the school recommended vast improvement.

In other parts of the facility, roofs leak. Prop-building materials share space with musical instruments. A truck is squeezed into a room with costumes and other supplies. If you open the curtains in the auditorium, you will see a disorganized storage area containing “stuff,” as students call it, from all over campus. Rain water runs down walls and stairwells, and mold grows from furniture, carpeting and seldom-used books. Air conditioning and other ventilating systems often fail.

Parents, teachers and administrators are “fighting like cats and dogs,” said a science teacher. “Something has to be done.”

For his part, Superintendent Frank Petruzielo has promised three major changes: a new principal for Dillard; a second principal responsible just for the arts program; and a new arts facility.

Supporters of keeping the program at Dillard are encouraged by the proposed changes. But many outspoken arts parents are fed up. The traditional program and the arts magnet mix about as well as oil and water, they say. Many academic teachers, for example, bristle at requests to bend rules or alter course work for arts students who must travel and practice and perform at off hours.

Kelly is at the eye of the storm. A Dillard alumnus, Kelly, who is black, has been principal for only four years. He inherited the problems of the arts magnet.

“I pray that I’m not being used as a scapegoat,” he said. “Every project manager who has looked at the auditorium has recommended changes. When you build a building in South Florida and dig for an orchestra pit, you will probably go below the water table. That’s what’s causing the water to settle into that orchestra pit. I didn’t cause that.”

Kelly, unusually candid for a principal, acknowledges that race and entrenched attitudes about Dillard’s sports tradition and location probably hurt the arts program.

“There are a many people who don’t think the arts magnet should be located here, and I can’t say that they’re all white,” he said. “There are some blacks who prefer that it’s moved. It’s not the majority, though. Most people just want the program fixed. They want the facilities upgraded. Nothing has been done to those facilities since they built them.”

Will his removal improve Dillard? Without bitterness, Kelly said that he hopes so. More specifically, if more patrons will step up and if district administrators and the foundation will give the program adequate funding, he will not lament his removal. His greatest concern is the students’ education. He regrets, however, that critics are ignoring the school’s excellent arts curriculum and its dedicated teachers.

“I just hope that my replacement truly has an opportunity to get an open hand to deal with the problems and not get tied down because of politics,” he said.

While preparing for his transfer in July, Kelly reminds himself that the arts are a culture unto themselves, and he will not accept blame for the problems inherent in the discipline. Why, he asks, is the arts magnet stagnating while Dillard’s other expensive magnet, technology, thrives? Why has technology, where complaints are rare, maintained wide corporate sponsorship and parental support while the arts magnet is controversial?

Attitude and commitment, he said.

Technology is measured by practical results. Businesses protect the bottom line and contribute to the program as needed. The arts, on the other hand, are captives of cultural biases and intangibles involving people’s perceptions of class, ethnicity and individual worth.

Dillard, with 2,400 students, is surrounded by dilapidation, poverty and crime. Most residents do not identify with the school as in the old days, when it was all-black, when nearly everyone was related to someone on campus. As a result of this lack of social capital, Dillard’s arts magnet has been a work in progress from its inception.

When asked by the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale if the superintendent’s proposed changes _ especially the appointment of a special arts principal _ will help the program establish a sense of permanence, Mayo Potter, who has two daughters in the arts magnet, expressed the view of many other parents who oppose keeping the magnet at Dillard.

“I’m still skeptical,” she said. “If it’s separate, it’s got to be so separate that it acts almost by itself.”

Fortunately, the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg has avoided most of the problems at Dillard. Like Dillard, Gibbs was an all-black school prior to court-ordered integration. And like Dillard, Gibbs became an arts magnet to draw white students.

Here, however, the similarities pretty much fade. Instead of disintegrating, the Gibbs program is popular and is growing, despite staff cuts last year, said Cathy Athanson, Area III superintendent in charge of the arts magnet.