Chicago’s the last major city to get a public high school devoted to the arts. The first city-wide school just opened, Chicago High School for the Arts, and there’s a ribbon cutting ceremony today. Teachers and students hope it won’t just give the city its version of Fame. They’re hoping it helps level the playing field too.
ambi: Welcome to Chi Arts dance program.
Dance instructor Lisa Johnson-Willingham looks around at the freshmen gathered before her. It’s the first day of orientation, and some of the students are in leotards and ballet shoes. Others are bare-footed with holes in their tights.
WILLINGHAM: Can everybody move back please? If there’s gum in your mouth, please take it out. If you want to get along with Miss Willingham, no gum ever.
One of the students watches especially closely. Ellie Rosario wants to dance with the Alvin Ailey company like Willingham did.
ROSARIO: When I dance, I forget everything. All my worries just go away. It’s just kind of a way for me to cope with things. Like say, if I have a problem, I dance. It’s kind of like therapy.
Some of the kids like Ellie have had years of private lessons and training. Others have never had a class, in school or out. Executive Director Jose Ochoa says the school’s mission is to train kids who have raw talent, training or not.
OCHOA: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and certain neighborhoods have all of the resources, and certain neighborhoods have none of the resources. And so if we just focused on those students who have the most resources, who had the most training, then we would have a student body from about four neighborhoods.
About 400 kids auditioned for 150 spots in the freshman class.
The school day is nine hours long. The first part is college prep. Then there’s three hours of instruction in dance, music, theater or visual art.
Ochoa says a unique culture has already started building.
OCHOA: At our school, the school jock is the student who wins the concerto competition, and the homecoming queen is the young lady who gets the lead in the school play. The culture has been building where everyone is equal, everyone is accepted, no one is making fun of the male dancers because they’re wearing tights. Everyone thinks that’s cool.
ambi of singing scales
Alex Arnold is one of them. Here’s what happened when he got his acceptance letter:
ARNOLD: My and my friends just went crazy. My mother heard us from inside the house. She’s like, ‘What’s going out here?’ I’m holding up the paper like, ‘I made it, I made, look at the paper, it says I made it.’
Alex wants to be on Broadway. But he’s only taken piano lessons and been in plays and choir in grade school. He’s excited to be here and learn technique.
ARNOLD: It makes us feel like we belong in this place where everyone is just like us. There’s no one calling us weird or just crazy or stupid or dumb. They’re saying wow, you really can sing, or wow, you really can act. Or wow, that’s a beautiful picture. It lets us be who we are.
ambi of dance class
The first day of orientation, instructor Lauren Moore leads the students in modern dance moves. Some of the students extend their arms and legs in graceful lines. Some move stiffly, and look around at the others to catch up.
Ballet teacher Brian McSween walks by and corrects their form.
Tandrell Cannon is another student who hasn’t had lessons. He wants to be a choreographer. But he figures he’d have to pick a different career without this school.
CANNON: I’m still very nervous, if you can hear it in my voice, you know. I think I’ll be able to overcome it though.
KALSNES: Nervous about what?
CANNON: About how I’m like intermediate, and everybody probably is like advanced. So I’m just going to have to catch up.
KALSNES: And do you think you’ll do that?
CANNON: Oh, yes. Very soon.
After class, Tandrell says it was tougher than he thought it would be. But what he doesn’t see yet, is he’s holding himself more gracefully already and his leaps are bigger.
NOTE: In full disclosure, some Chicago Public Radio board members are also on the board of the Chicago High School for the Arts.