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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Competitive state summer school offers rare opportunity for arts enrichment

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SUMMER LEARNING: Education experts say idle summers can put kids behind when they go back to school in the fall. KPCC's education team spoke to teachers, parents and kids across Southern California about what they're learning this summer - or not.

Walk along the campus of Cal Arts in Valencia this summer and you will find dancers twirling in studios, animation students sketching off of live models and acting students practicing their monologues in front of an audience of peers. 

The students are high schoolers. They've come here from all over the state after winning a coveted spot in the California State Summer School for the Arts. This year's program, which concludes Friday, brought together 515 students from nearly every county in California - about half of them from rural areas around the state.

"I was crazy, I was so excited," said Christopher Mosley, 17, about the moment he ripped open the acceptance letter.

A theater student from Riverside, Mosley was among 1,300 applicants. Fewer than half made it in.

"A lot of these people will become the next generation of professional artists in this country," said Michael Fields, the summer school's director.

At the four-week overnight program, students are encouraged to do more than practice their craft and instead let their creativity run wild. They spend long hours immersed in their chosen art field - a typical day at the program keeps teenagers busy from 9 a.m. to 9:30 or 10 p.m.

But the program aspires to do more than help them develop professionally, Fields said.

"It's more to me about how they become fully human creative beings in this world," he said. "And to allow them to know that that is possible."

Mosley said he enjoys the independence. Students are in charge of managing their own schedules and workloads, as well as handling tasks like laundry.

"It's really nice to actually think for yourself," he said. "You have to determine things for yourself and it shows you what kind of character you have."

When his family called him the first week to see if he was homesick, he told them he was having the time of his life. 

State summer schools for the arts used to be fairly common in the U.S., with dozens around the nation, according to Peggy Burt, executive director for the California State Summer School for the Arts. But that's not the case anymore.

"Over time, as the impact of budget cuts at the state level has been more and more deep, many of those state summer schools went away," Burt said. "Now there's only a handful left."

During the state summer school's 27 years in operation, there have been several times when supporters worried it would fall victim to state budget cuts. At times, employees went weeks without pay as they waited for the state budget to pass, Fields said.

And somehow it survived, in part because it gets about a third of its budget from donations. The other two thirds comes from tax dollars and tuition. Parents pay between $100 and $5,000 for their kids to attend, depending on their income.

For student Lilly Mayfield, 17, this is the longest she's ever been away from home. She's from the small town of Ukiah, a few hours north of San Francisco.

"It's strange to wake up like living with other people," she said, describing life in the dorms at Cal Arts. "This is just a really dense environment, just compact with art and people and experience and knowledge."

For many students at the summer school, the experience helps them to imagine an artistic life that can be tough to conceptualize from their home towns. 

George Vargas, 17, is from San Jose. He described his time at the summer school as the happiest he's ever been.

"I was never planning to come here, I was just some kid who sat in his room and played bass guitar and that's it," he said.

Performing new material in front of a crowd changed the way he viewed himself and his future. He wasn't sure about college before, but now, Vargas said he plans to go for sure.


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