Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

What happens when an artist splashes the wrong color on a painting, or the sculptor watches her armature buckle under the weight of the clay?

They recover, blot up the paint, pick up the pieces, and get about making art.

Jazz musicians don’t stop when a trumpet misses the note, or the piano drops a phrase. They can’t. Their art compels them. When the song goes kittywampus and the audience is in that free fall of uncertainty, what is it that the best musicians do?

Lean into it.

And those actors over in the theatre, what is it they say when they’re improvising?

They say: Yes, and…

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As the 20th century disappeared, the world starting to worry about the Y2K bug and listening to Prince’s ode to 1999, life at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy shifted gears. Was it different than it had been before? Yes, and…      

After the changes: staff, policy, and vision, school opened in the fall.

Beneath the circular portico, from which the words “C.E. Mason” had been removed, life kept going at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Students painted and drew, made music, made art, and began to dance.

“That first year was rough,” remembered Judy Chown, who came to ACMA as a staff member in 1998. “The District wanted a magnet school but that was not communicated clearly to the parents and staff. The staff was upset, and some left at the end of that year. The parents were upset and the students were upset. We began a PTA that year and the meetings sometimes had 200 angry parents shouting at the principal, unhappy with the perceived changes. There were some wonderful parts to the old; the sense of security and community, art as a focus, but the old A&C needed a makeover, and we took on the challenge with a vengeance.”

While the ACMA staff set about creating a mission statement — a challenge that led some to walk out of the initial staff meetings and later the school itself, branding the school, and articulating its arts focus, the students at ACMA did what they did best: create. Pushing up against the world, students embraced their free spirited sense of adventure and made art.

Look in The Savant, ACMA’s new school newspaper, and you’ll find a two page spread on the music scene at “our own Rock and Roll High School.” Cataloguing student bands, including the band-hopping intrigue of talented student musicians, the article ends with the line: “Are you surprised at the amount of talent your high school has? You shouldn’t be. Have pride and respect for your Rock and Roll High School. There is no other quite like it.”

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There certainly was no other place quite like it; ACMA was not a comprehensive high school, and proudly so. As Amelia Romaine, the editor of the 2001 yearbook, wrote: “To say that you go to a school that’s out of the ordinary shows you really care about what you are doing with your education. You’ve taken the next step to show you will not be pushed around and that you value your personal voice.”

Students were finding ways for their voices to be heard at this changing school. Things were different than they had been, but as Shanyelle King said at the time: “It’s not the rules that make this school great, or the amount of money that’s in the budget. What makes this school great is the people who walk down the halls every day; the teachers who don’t mind taking a few minutes away from their energy packed lectures to inspire you; the students who support and inspire one another. This school’s spirit isn’t necessarily about football teams and pep rallies, it’s about people caring about each other and creating an environment in which the students and teachers care enough to want to show up.”

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.22.03 amOne of the fundamental changes in the opening years of the 21st century was the emergence of dance at ACMA, and Dance West in particular. Over the years few programs have matched this pre-professional company, which has launched students to dynamic professional lives of dance.

This addition of more performing arts broadened ACMA’s creative world, with vocal music, orchestra, and theatre filling the Quonset Hut with artistic energy. For more than a decade this unconventional space would see performances wild and unexpected, polished and professional, serious and sometimes nutty.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.54.53 amTo reflect that expanded artistic landscape, ACMA went in search of a logo. Peter Han, now a professional artist and then a painter with as clear an artistic vision as community mindset, listened to the comments of a student volunteer group. “The next morning, he met me at my office door at 7:30 a.m.” Judy Chown remembers “and said. ‘Is this what you had in mind?’ He had drawn the new logo that we used for around 8 years.”

Student ownership, even as adults made changes prompted by budget and bureaucracy, was very real at ACMA. As the 2003 budget crisis threatened to shutter the district’s arts academy, and, as Judy Chown remembers, “from November through the end of the year, teachers, administration, staff, and students testified and made passionate pleas before the school board in order to save our program,” students made art.

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Drawing, painting, sculpting, ACMA students brought technicolor creativity to a world of black and white. Looking back at the canvases and into the sketchbooks of the early 2000s reminds us that the world through teenage eyes looks different than it does to those over thirty.

Peter Han did more than logos, capturing his teachers in a Star Wars mashup. Yambo as Yoda? Check. Obi-Wan Tateoka? Yep. Kevin Bennett as an Ewok? But of course.

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Kara Kerpan remembers “shadowing for a day as an 8th grader to decide if ACMA was the school for me. I was instantly sold when I saw people playing music in the hallways. I also loved that there was a slew of ‘greaser’ guys with slicked back hair!” Hardly strictly domesticated.

Later, as a student, she told me that “my friends and I had a disagreement over dress code and free expression with the principal and it was featured in the Oregonian. Then there was the field trip to the ape caves that left all the students soaking wet and giddy on a long bus ride back to Beaverton. That school really embraced us ‘weirdos’ and gave us a place to be creative and thrive.”

And, inexplicably, there were accordions. So very ACMA.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.18.39 amBy the time in 2003 that ACMA added 6th graders to the student body, it had truly become a magnet, not alternative school, and inside the students carried with them the marvelously, unapologetic “weirdo” DNA of those early pioneers who had called C.E. Mason home. Many of those first students had graduated or were gone, their passing lamented by current students who had shared (or heard stories about) the early years of the school, but their legacy lived on, sometimes openly and sometimes, as that article about rock and roll suggested, “underground.”

Students had always made their own way, and now they were moving into the 21st century with the creative, sometimes rebellious, and improvisational attitude of Yes, and…

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