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In the dance studio at Burnsville's Performing Arts Center, 14-year-old Gregory Sharp sank into a beginner's grand plié last week, surrounded almost entirely by girls.
"Ballet's not as bad as I thought it would be," said Sharp, one of 65 students at the brand-new Envision Academy of the Arts. "It's actually kind of tough to do. I underestimated it."
It's a far cry from the break-dancing Sharp is used to, and even further from the football field where he'd also like to be practicing this fall. But at Envision, he's hardly the only novice.
"You're going to see children here that have zero arts experience, coming in with very much an interest in it, to students who have perhaps danced for 10 or 12 years," said program coordinator Donna Dunphy.
That's just fine by Dunphy and other educators in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District who are holding auditions or teaching new science lessons this fall at four new magnet programs.
Along with Envision, the district has turned Harriet Bishop Elementary into a gifted-and-talented magnet school. The district has opened programs focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at William Byrne Elementary and Metcalf Junior High.
During Envision classes last week, music drifted out of the dance studio and mixed with the voices of students reading Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" in a theater class down the hall.
There were clues the program is just launching: Backpacks cluttered a hallway for lack of cubby holes, and Dunphy said she still finds herself hunting for basic supplies such as scissors.
It's too early to judge the new programs, said Superintendent Randy Clegg. "People are still settling in. ... We're still making sure everybody's in the right place," he said.
In coming months, school leaders will be looking for indicators of success or failure, including student achievement and the extent to which the magnet schools are faithful to their stated specialties. That task may be trickiest at Harriet Bishop, Clegg said, since gifted education is a broad theme that draws students with vastly differing abilities.
Correcting racial imbalance
Clegg and others also will be watching to see how much the magnet programs, which were started with state integration money, help smooth a racial imbalance between the district and less-diverse schools in neighboring Lakeville.
School leaders often start magnet programs as a way to lure students of different races across district boundaries, but the per-pupil funding that travels with Minnesota students is another reason those out-of-district children are attractive.
This fall, the four new magnet programs in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district drew about 90 children from elsewhere, including roughly 25 from Lakeville.
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school board members, who also say they like the additional choices that magnet programs give families, have already made it a goal to open another one next fall. That magnet program, also focusing on gifted education, would pick up where Harriet Bishop leaves off and offer enrichment to students at an as-yet unspecified junior high school.
For now, many teachers are busy getting the existing programs off the ground. At Envision, the challenges ahead include serving a mix of novices and experts in classes that focus on theater, dance and music.
Students must also balance afternoon arts lessons with morning core classes at Burnsville High School. That's a key strength of Envision, Dunphy said, pointing out that many similar programs struggle to offer students the array of courses taught at a huge high school. "If you're starting an arts school from square one, it can be hard to offer AP World History," she said.
But Envision's schedule leaves little room for flexibility, requiring students to choose between electives such as Spanish and student council. It also means they spend two-and-a-half more hours in class than peers who are not in the magnet program. That makes it hard, if not impossible, for many to play team sports -- a conflict that's clearly painful to students such as Sharp, but less so to some of his classmates.
"You have to give a little to gain a little," said former tennis player Ellen Cocchiarella. "Tennis isn't what I want to pursue with my life. Acting is."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016