Felix Maull just wanted a high school that was safe and comfortable. He didn’t know the painter inside him. He even thought he “hated art.”
Teenager Paulo Sadek had law school on his mind — not art. But he couldn’t forget the way photographers had captured the uprising he saw in Egypt’s revolution.
Maull is the city kid, rising to his artistic self at Kansas City’s Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, a magnet school where eight out of every 10 students qualify for federal meals assistance.
The school can’t collect studio fees from its students. It stretches its magnet school budget from Kansas City Public Schools in its quest to be a distinctive arts school, relying on donors to reach for many of its special amenities.
Sadek is suburban, making himself a photographer at Blue Valley North High School, where less than one in 10 students is considered economically disadvantaged.
His school can comfortably charge fees to help offset statewide funding issues in Kansas. That’s $60 per student for expensive classes like photography.
Blue Valley arts teacher Alison Crane knows both schools. She student-taught at Paseo.
She knows that her suburban Johnson County students more often have grown up with arts experiences. More had community arts classes or piano lessons or dance schools. Families aren’t under as many sources of stress.
“Parents can be more supportive,” she said. “Art is a luxury.”
Since 2006, Paul Dorrell has been trying to help bridge the financial divide that separates schools like Paseo and Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kan., from their more suburban counterparts.
“Let’s fix this,” said Dorrell, a gallery owner and arts promoter who has been one of Paseo’s avid supporters and whose Leopold Gallery has shown its students’ art.
“There is an arts boom in Kansas City,” he said, talking about the Crossroads district renaissance and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
But he fears that “Paseo has been left in the dust.”
Students thrive in both schools.
“I’d be lost,” Maull said, imagining where he would be without the arts. “I didn’t have a lot of social skills. I’d be trapped in a desk.”
But in the arts, he said, “I can see what makes me be me.”
He is heading to art school for graphic design and painting once he graduates in May.
Sadek, who is accumulating foreign languages in pursuit of an international business lawyer career, found his artistic self in Blue Valley North’s photo darkroom.
Photojournalists in Egypt inspired him by capturing the faces of the poor and young he saw rising up in the streets of Cairo. Now he is determined to make his own art.
“Photography is its own language,” he said. “You don’t need an interpreter.”
Blue Valley North classmate Emily Eubank, 14, wants to be a fashion photographer. Ethan Osterhage, 16, wants to be a cinematographer.
At Paseo, 14-year-old Azaria Head-Lewis is a dancer — saying now that she would still be all “nerves” and “scared” without the confidence that studio work and live performance has brought her.
It’s a powerful feeling, “getting a taste of the professional,” said Pat Jordan, a Kansas City art dealer whose Gem Cultural and Educational Center and Vine Street Studio have collaborated with Paseo to put student works before the public.
Jordan is a product of Kansas City’s Southeast High School, a “very shy” teen who gained her courage through dance and music.
“It is our obligation in our communities to assist our schools,” she said. “Schools — especially urban schools — can’t do it themselves anymore.”
Paseo principal Dennis Walker isn’t complaining. The school has resources, he said. The Kansas City school district supports the magnet school’s special programming. The school has some 40 community partnerships.
Some additional support from outside would help the school extend its reach as an arts school, he said. They could bring in more of that “professional taste” Jordan spoke of.
“We could bring in more guest artists in residence,” Walker said. “Master teachers could teach master classes.”
Then there are the mounting expenses of arts schools — royalties in putting on shows, lumber for theater sets, sheet music, ballet shoes …
Both in Paseo and in Blue Valley North, teachers and administrators repeat the value of arts education and its correlation with student success.
Research through the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 revealed particularly strong correlations between arts education and the performance of socially and economically disadvantaged children.
The improved outcomes “extend to school grades, test scores, honors society membership, high school graduation, college enrollment and achievement, volunteering and engagement in school or local politics.”
State records show Paseo in 2014 had a four-year graduation rate of 95 percent.
“The arts hook our children,” Walker said. “It inspires a love for learning.”
Fifteen-year-old Paseo sophomore Sydney White is going to become a broadcast journalist.
Keyon Woods, 17, is going to be a costume designer, an actor and otherwise working the stage one way or the other.
He has been “hooked” over and over again, he said, every time one of his costumes on sight brings the actor right “into character.” Or when he takes the stage and sees the eager look in the eyes on the front row of people “who are ready to be entertained.”
Dorrell knows the students have talent. He’s seen it. And he knows the teachers are dedicated. He wants the district to invest more in the school and, even more so, he wants to see more community support, he said.
“Can’t we make this a true arts magnet school?”