The Biscayne Times

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Oct 22nd
A School Is Born PDF Print E-mail
Written by By Margaret Griffis   
May 2009

Coming to the neighborhood: A dream called Miami Arts Charter School

After summer vacation, when the lights switch on again at Miami-Dade public schools this August, several hundred lucky students will have a new school in the Design District to call their own. Instead of stuffing the usual pencils and notebooks into their backpacks, though, these kids will also carry paint brushes and ballerina slippers to classes at the Miami Arts Charter School, which will occupy the former Channel 10 studios at 3900 Biscayne Blvd.

Miami Arts Charter, or MAC, is the latest charter school to open in the county. Founded by husband and wife educational team Alfredo and Christine de la Rosa, MAC will provide the conventional middle- and high-school learning experience, but it will also offer students an unparalleled opportunity to develop their creative skills. Even as other public schools see their arts and music budgets dwindling dramatically, visual artists, dancers, actors, musicians, and creative writers will find a nurturing environment at this new campus.

This focus on the arts is possible thanks to a relatively new educational movement that blossomed in the 1990s. Basically, charter schools are autonomous public schools, licensed and monitored by Miami-Dade County Public Schools officials. Like the standard version, the charters are open to all children living within the county, their students pay no tuition, and they receive local, state, and federal tax dollars for their operating expenses. Unlike most public schools, however, charters are not constrained by attendance boundaries; they can accept students living anywhere in Miami-Dade County.

In 1996 the first charter schools appeared in Florida; today more than 70 are operating in Miami-Dade County alone. The main difference between charter and standard public schools is that decision-making, beyond that which is prescribed by law, occurs entirely within the school itself.

As founder and executive director, Alfredo de la Rosa explains, “The thing that drove me the most is that I built several good [arts] programs over the years, and large systems and bureaucracies being what they are, they tend to have a decision-making process that doesn’t always jibe with what any particular teacher is trying to do. The arts are frequently the first things to go. I just wanted to make sure that I don’t continue to build programs for kids that eventually, for whatever reason -- financial, political, or whatever -- end up being done away with. The only way to ensure that is to have control.”

De la Rosa has worked as a public-school educator for more than 20 years, is nationally board-certified, and has launched a number of magnet schools already, so he has plenty of experience to guide him in this ambitious undertaking. He grew up in the Miami-Dade public school system, and would even ride his bike by the Channel 10 studios to class. “I never thought I’d open a school there,” he laughs. “Having a school like Miami Arts in the neighborhood benefits everybody. We’ll be producing the artists and musicians and writers and painters of the future, who are going to ultimately stay here in Miami and contribute back to the arts community, or move on to the professional world as better people, better professionals overall, because of the discipline they’ll be learning.”

As for those Channel 10 studios, the serendipitous relocation of WPLG to Pembroke Park in March not only opened the door to MAC, it provided the school with a landmark building that was already geared to high-quality arts production. Among other benefits, large interior open spaces will turn into rehearsal halls, while soundproof editing bays will become practice rooms.

MAC will be leasing the building from 3900 Biscayne LLC, an investment group that includes Miami architect Kobi Karp, who is known not only for his innovative designs but also for his commitment to preservation and green technologies. His architecture company is very active in remodeling the facility as a school. Says de la Rosa: “We’re very fortunate to have run into them, because it really is a big helping hand to have such expertise onboard.”

Another mutual advantage to the community will be MAC’s links to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, which de la Rosa calls “among the best in the world.” The dean of the Frost School, Shelton Berg, sits on the MAC governing board. “At a time of cutbacks,” says Berg, “I think it’s really important for something as essential as music and art that this school is starting. Music has never been more important to people than it is now. It’s ingrained in everyone’s life, and it’s part of what weaves us together as a society. When it’s cut from education, I think there’s no regard for just how essential it is to the human experience. I call it the ‘mortar of humanity’ because it really is.”

MAC will have its normal retinue of accredited teachers, but through the Frost School, students will have access to broader educational opportunities. Berg elaborates: “Because we’re such a great resource of talent, [MAC] is hiring some of our students [for tutoring and other instruction], and I think even some of our part-time faculty to do some teaching there, which means instruction will be at a very high level.” The relationship between MAC and UM is still its early stages, Berg adds, and will develop and define itself over time.

Two other public schools offering an arts curriculum are practically neighbors: Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) is just across the railroad tracks from MAC, and the New World School of the Arts is nearby in downtown Miami. Both schools serve 9th through 12th grades (New World also features a college component), and both are magnet schools within the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system. Being magnet schools, as opposed to charters, means they don’t enjoy the same level of autonomy MAC will have. De la Rosa resists calling them competition and believes the three schools complement each other as there are so many Miami-Dade students who are interested in the arts. In fact, skills learned at MAC could help middle-school students get into New World or DASH if that’s the path they wish to take.

MAC will, however, screen prospective students much the same way as New World and DASH. Children will be required to apply and possibly audition for a spot at MAC. If they are enrolling as beginners at the sixth-grade level, they will go through an interview to determine if the school is the best fit for them. As they mature as artists, they will have the opportunity to audition for specific programs and ensembles, or to simply complete their core academic studies.

Yes, just because MAC is an “arts” charter school doesn’t mean students won’t receive a rigorous education in math, science, socials studies, and the language arts. Nor will they get out of those dreaded P.E. classes. The academic program will operate within Florida’s “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards,” and the school will eventually seek accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

So what has been the most difficult part of creating a brand-new school? De la Rosa doesn’t hesitate with an answer: real estate. It took nearly two years, he says, to find an appropriate location for the middle and high school, and he still hasn’t found a building to house what will be MAC’s already approved elementary school. So that part of the project will have to wait until at least the 2010 school year, if not longer.

What he and his wife won’t have difficulty finding is enough talented students to fill the halls. The school held its first audition this past March at the University of Miami. More than 125 students participated. Auditions will continue through July or until there is a waiting list to get in. Interested students can apply online at www.miamiartscharter.net.

 

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