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SAISD Prepared to Phase Out Fine Arts Magnet

"Artistic people are kind of weird and they need to stick together," joked Virginia Guzman, explaining just one of many reasons she and a host of parents and students are angry with San Antonio Independent School District over its decision to phase out theFine Arts Magnet Academy at Thomas Jefferson High School. Guzman, like many other FAMA parents, learned of SAISD's plans to halt student recruitment for FAMA through her son, graduated senior Jordan, during the last week of school.

The news shocked parents and students who considered the Fine Arts Magnet Academy essential to helping students stand out in the flood of college applications. SAISD, charged with turning around languishing Jefferson, sees things differently. "The magnet title doesn't determine anything if your school is academically unacceptable," said SAISD school board district rep Ed Garza. Jefferson earned the dubious distinction for the first time this year, with abysmal TEKS and SAT scores and an all time high level of discipline infractions.

What does that have to do with FAMA students, wondered the crowd of parents and their kids who met in Jefferson's cafeteria last Thursday to learn more about the new plan for Jeff and confront Garza, assistant superintendent Priscilla Canales, and increasingly irate Jefferson High principal Joanne Cockrell. To the FAMA lovers, it seemed the district held the tiny portion (186) of enrolled students as somehow accountable for the failings of Jefferson's large (2,000+) student body. Moreover, the district coupled FAMA-axing news with a presentation highlighting Jefferson's planned distinction as a "leadership" school, which includes, (gasp!) JROTC. If there's one thing that makes arty kids and their parents even more dejected than screwing with their public school arts programing, it's appearing to do so in favor of military training. Top that off with the suddenness of the news, and it made for quite a heady emotional brew in the cafeteria meeting. Though the only person we witnessed raising their voice and calling people stupid was principal Cockrell ('oh no she didn't!' you're thinking to yourself right now, but, oh, yes, she did, when she gestured to a group of FAMA students, saying 'stupidity comes in all forms' when the kids got a bit indignant toward the end of the meeting), kids and parents panicked that the courses would be dropped all together, that Jefferson would become a military school, that their sensitive artist types would once again be forced into classes with mouthbreathers looking for an easy A instead of a stimulating challenge.

When the dust settled, SAISD provided answers that were somewhat less alarming, though still disheartening for SA parents in possession of creative children but not a lot of money. Garza maintained that the magnet distinction was somewhat of a misnomer at FAMA, since all the courses could be found in other district high schools, and aside from portfolio and entrance applications, the requirements to participate in FAMA mirrored requirements to participate in any other electives in the district. Instead of amping up funding for a better magnet, Garza and district executives reevaluated Jefferson as a whole, focusing on how to draw in more students than FAMA's small numbers, and concluding that, while the same courses could be found at any district school as at FAMA, they could offer a leadership focus, with primary elective groups of creative arts, athletics and JROTC. Garza and Canales are also excited about special courses in enviornmental and military sciences, eliciting eye rolls from fine arts-focused individuals, but big smiles from more left-brained thinkers focused on job preparation specific to San Antonio's economy. To quell those in the community worried about SAISD students' access to quality art programs, Garza also paints this as a move for equality, titling the beginning of the powerpoint presentation made in the cafeteria as "Fine Arts for All," and doing his best to convince a skeptical audience that skimming the cream off the top of talented middle schoolers across the district hurt other high schools' arts programs. Supposedly, Jefferson's rising tide of arts programming, once demagnetized, will lift all SAISD ships, and by the time the magnet designation is phased out in 2015, voila, each school will have its own quality fine arts courses comparable to Jeff's or suffer the consequences of the district's open enrollment policy, allowing kids in any SAISD area to attend any district school. Garza claims he ran on the Jefferson Leadership school platform, and that the reason many FAMA parents and kids were caught unawares is that currently only about 30 percent of FAMA students actually live in his district. During the meeting Canales maintained that no FAMA courses or teachers would be taken away from Jeff, and Garza said the program's most laudable requirements, that students develop a portfolio and complete a senior recital/performance/show/project could stay. Still, students who felt a close kinship with others who had to apply to be part of FAMA, including one 15 year-old autistic boy who went from special needs classes to college prep after joining FAMA and "finally fit in," according to his mother, Maria Davidson, are worried they won't receive the same stimulation and consistency FAMA's four year tracks provided. Other parents like Rina Moreno are still miffed they won't have a decent arts program to send their artistic children starting high school next year. Moreno said she had hoped to send her daughter to the FAMA program, since it was more affordable than paying out-of-district tuition to North East School of the Arts, which itself barely survived talks of shuttering last January. As of right now, until the district can prove its policy of improving arts education for all, "SAISD is basically cutting off its arts students," said Moreno. Amanda Rohm, a 16 year-old singer in FAMA's vocal music strand said she knew the phase out wouldn't affect her, but still she was concerned. "I'm worried about all the other dreamers that come after me," she said.

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