The Baltimore School for the Arts came into existence in 1979, and the school's phenomenal success has been pretty well-documented. Its first graduates are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and a list of former students—Project Runway winner Christian Siriano, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, rapper Tupac Shakur, and Broadway's Tracie Thoms—reads like a star-studded role call.
Such alums have certainly helped establish School for the Arts as a premier pre-professional arts school. And for many, the school conjures up Fame-style images of students doing pirouettes off the front stoop, singing in the hallways, acting out scenes from favorite films, or painting and sculpting away teen angst.
The school does, indeed, produce its share of singers, actors, and visual artists, but it also graduates students who go on to other professions—from digital animators to jewelry designers and music professors. Their stories give a peek into what makes the school such a special place.
Richard White refers to School for the Arts as a "miracle school." His own survival was a miracle in itself. Born weighing one-and-a-half pounds, so small he could fit in the palm of one hand, he later became homeless, roaming the streets of Baltimore with his mother who ran away from home at 14, became pregnant, and struggled with alcoholism.
They navigated the streets of neighborhoods like Sandtown until he was 4 years old. He ate food from trash cans, often storing it under his tongue, unsure when he would have his next meal. He and his mother found shelter under trees and in abandoned houses. He still bears scars where rats nibbled at his hip and stomach as he slept in one of those houses.
One day, White got separated from his mother during a severe snowstorm. As he searched for her, he took shelter in the vestibule of a house. When police were called, he was found sleeping and freezing. But the snowstorm that could have killed him may have saved his life. He was placed into a child social services program.
Not long after, foster parents Richard and Vivian McClain became White's legal guardians and took him into their Mt. Washington home. At first, White had trouble adjusting. In the mornings, his parents would find him, pajamas off, clothes back on, curled up on the floor, more accustomed to sleeping on the ground than in a bed.
But by the fourth grade, he discovered the trumpet, which, he says, gave him a new sense of self and a way to express what he felt and couldn't articulate in words. He later switched to the tuba and heard about T.W.I.G.S. (To Work In Gaining Skills), an after-school program at School for the Arts, and enrolled in the program.
When he heard there was an audition to enter the high school, he jumped at the opportunity. Well, he didn't exactly jump, because he was on crutches at the time—he'd broken his hip during a pickup football game. On crutches, he dragged the unwieldy instrument to the audition on a Saturday.
"What are you doing here?" asked Chris Ford, the music director for the school.
"I came to audition," White said eagerly.
"Auditions were last week," Ford told him.
But White's enthusiasm made Ford give him a listen, and though his audition wasn't impressive, it was passable. "He was an eager and engaging kid, the sort of person most folks are happy to be around," says Ford. "He succeeded at music, while students who had more talent, but less drive, did not."
Although he had been given the opportunity he dreamed about, White was still a rebellious student—talking back to teachers, defying the dress code, and sometimes refusing to practice—which nearly got him expelled. But teachers tended to give him second chances.
Now, as assistant professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of New Mexico and principal tubist for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, he credits teachers at School for the Arts with helping him look beyond his immediate circumstances. "The sacrifices made by the staff and faculty were above and beyond the call of duty, that's what propelled me," says White. "The faculty believed in me. I say staff and faculty. The janitors would say, 'I have a chicken sandwich, do you want half?' They'd stay there late and help with your [rehearsal]."
When he finishes his dissertation, White will become the first African-American to earn a doctorate in tuba performance from Indiana University. "The tuba, it's misjudged," he says. "It's bulky. People don't think it can make beautiful sounds. It's very much like me and a lot of homeless people on the streets. There's a misconception in our society that if you haven't made it, you didn't try hard enough. Some people need a little more help."
For a serious kid with a perpetually furrowed brow like Dan Mycka, the T.W.I.G.S. program provided just the boost of confidence he needed to succeed at the school. "I worried that he seemed to get no joy out of the work he did," remembers Visual Arts department head Stephen Kent, of the teen who had just moved from Poland to Baltimore. "He was a perfectionist and didn't seem to have fun like most of the other kids."
T.W.I.G.S. was started in 1983 as a free community-outreach program, designed to level the playing field by giving 2nd-8th grade students from Baltimore skills and training in the arts.
Dan had traces of his Slavic accent when he enrolled in T.W.I.G.S. at the urging of his mother. She watched his interest in art grow at home, where he would sit in his room with a pencil and draw everything in it. At the after-school program, he was introduced to acrylic paints, drawing with charcoal, and the techniques used by professional artists. He dreamed of being a Star Wars animator.
By the time he auditioned and enrolled at the high school, he'd lost his Slavic accent and serious demeanor and had developed a good sense of humor. So much so, he started taking his studies less seriously. But Kent helped him achieve more of a balance. "He reminded me that once you go out in the world you have to take your art seriously," says Mycka. "You have to work hard as an artist and really pour yourself into it. That thinking carried over into all different things in my life."
After enrolling at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), he was impatient to work in his field. He left after a year and took a position as an illustrator with the Becker Group in Baltimore. Among his colleagues, his fine arts background served him well. "Those who had a fine arts background had a deeper understanding of what makes good art, not just the technical knowledge you need to use the tools," says Mycka.
Though he hasn't yet fulfilled his dream of working as an artist on a Star Wars film, he has worked as a lead artist for sci-fi video games, including Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith for Xbox.
"I knew that he would be successful in an art-related career, one that was exacting and detail oriented," says Kent. "He didn't realize it at the time, but he worked so hard, so he wouldn't disappoint himself."
In 1984, 14-year-old Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell thought she could dance. It didn't matter that she had no formal training. She went to the School for the Arts audition, emboldened by her admiration for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" videos.
"I just danced like nobody was watching," she remembers. "I must have looked like a flying chicken."
At the school, she was initially intimidated by the ballet and modern classes, because the techniques were so unfamiliar to her. But she was inspired to keep at it by unconventional teachers like professional ballet dancer Sylvester Campbell.
"He would compare our moves and positions to food," says Fisher-Harrell. "'That looks like a chicken wing!' or 'That looks like a boiled potato!' He would always compare you to something that wasn't good. But he was hard on us because the profession is hard."
When School for the Arts took students to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Lyric Opera House, Fisher-Harrell was awed. "Stop the presses!" she remembers thinking. "I had never seen so many African-American people on stage, so many beautiful, powerful, magnetic, technically proficient dancers. From then on, if you said, 'Alvin Ailey,' I was gonna turn in your direction."
She was accepted into Ailey's summer program and ended up doing multiple intensive programs in New York during her summers.
At 19, she auditioned for the prestigious Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and got in, leading her to leave Julliard, where she was studying at the time. With Hubbard Street, she danced abroad—including performances in Poland, Germany, and France—and worked with the likes of Twyla Tharp, Daniel Ezralow, and Margo Sappington.
But when an opportunity to audition for Ailey presented itself, Fisher-Harrell took a chance. Her contract with Hubbard was up for renewal, and she declined to sign it, so she could audition for Ailey. Out of over 200 women that auditioned, she was the only one chosen.
She danced with Ailey from 1992 to 2005 and performed all over the world. "I was encountering dancers I had looked up to for many years, and there I was in the same room with them," she says, still awe-struck. She even performed at The White House, at a state dinner honoring Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, with George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Colin Powell in the audience.
Now retired, she's working as an assistant professor at Towson and one day a week at School for the Arts. She credits her alma mater for directing her career. She even married a fellow School for the Arts grad, James Evans. (The couple are now divorced.)
Her daughter, Adia Evans, is a vocal student at the school. "Everyone told me it's like a big family," the 15-year-old says, "and I got here and it actually is."
"You are learning from professionals who know the business, they know what they're doing, and have a great way of passing it down," Fisher-Harrell says. "You have your outlet, you have your passion. And you think, 'Somebody is grading me to do this? Are you kidding?'"
Though Shana Kroiz imagined herself as a famous actress when she was a youngster, she often found herself creating sculptures and pictures around the house. So she brought in a portfolio of three-dimensional works—ceramics, busts, sculptures made of toothpicks—all of them mounted on boards like a professional artist's, for her School for the Arts audition.
"I loved building things, I'm very meticulous, always had really good craftsmanship," says Kroiz, who majored in visual arts. "But I was not a good student before I came to School for the Arts."
She says Stephen Kent helped change all that. "He had really high standards," Kroiz remembers. "He was totally intimidating, but he was funny. Everyone wanted his attention."
"I think my students want to do their best for me because they know, first and foremost, that I like them," says Kent. "They learn very early on that I am honest. A compliment from me may be rare, but it's real."
Kroiz went on to Parsons The New School for Design and was urged by her father to major in something that would earn money. So she majored in jewelry design. "When I went to Parsons, I found I was just better prepared [than most students]," she says. "It was easier for me, and I wasn't focused on learning the basic skills."
She returned to Baltimore for grad school at Towson University and went on to found the jewelry design department at MICA in 1992.
She now produces artistic, high-end pieces for commission customers and art show exhibitions. Occasionally, she designs more traditional engagement and wedding rings, but even they are creative and one-of-a-kind. By the age of 23, she was cited as one of the country's leading enamellists and featured in the book One of a Kind: American Art Jewelry Today.
Kroiz notes that she got something beyond a foundation in fine arts from her time at School for the Arts, and it's rooted in being with students from a variety of racial and socio-economic backgrounds. She fondly recalls driving friends in her lime green Chevette to clubs like Odell's and hanging out at backyard parties. "You had kids from every environment, and everybody was trying to find their way," says Kroiz, who grew up in Bolton Hill. "I think when you leave School for the Arts, you get a sense of preparedness for life. Students there have an edge on how to deal with people."
"Kids of means need to know kids who don't have and vice versa," she continues. "It's mutually beneficial. It's the same thing with [different] races and religions, and School for the Arts provided that. There's a sense of balance when it's everyone's school."