It might be hard to believe now, but there was a time when Sean Tillman was a nobody looking to get out of Owatanna High School by any means necessary. "I felt like an outcast," he says. "I thought there was nowhere to go."
Enter the Perpich Center, commonly known as the Arts High School. A decade and a half after his graduation from its theater department, Tillman is putting the finishing touches on a fourth album under his nom de music, Har Mar Superstar, and penning a feature-length comedy with Dodgeball's Justin Long.
"It catapulted me into believing in my music career, and in my acting," Har Mar says of Perpich. "Now here I am, making a living off of both. That would have been a lot harder without the Arts High School."
As a junior in the Hopkins public school system, a purple-haired Katherine Gerdes was sweltering in an airless academic kiln. Enrolling in the Perpich Center as a senior in 1999, Gerdes found herself redoubling her academic interests and courting the attention of the Rhode Island School of Design. A decade and a good run on Bravo's fashion reality show Project Runway later, Gerdes now splits her time between running her own fashion design company, freelancing textile design for Target, and baking pastries for south Minneapolis' Hell's Kitchen.
"As a designer, as an artist, as a person, it made me confident in being able to stand out," Gerdes says of Perpich. "There's nothing else like it. I wouldn't be the person I am if I hadn't gone to Arts High."
Since opening in 1989, the Perpich Center for Arts Education has made a habit of producing stars. It is a uniquely Minnesota success story and a national model.
But that won't save it from the wrath of Governor Tim Pawlenty's budget pen. On the school's 20th anniversary, it faces a raft of cuts that would gut the school as we know it, eliminating its dorms, professional outreach, and even its ability to select the next class of stars in the making.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, $11 million dollars must be flayed from the school's budget over the next two fiscal years. The school would lose $2 million in 2010, but by July 2011, the Arts School would find itself repurposed as a charter, leaving the Center one dormitory program and $9 million lighter.
It's not quite over yet for the Center— the cuts are still just ink on paper, and a decision on whether to sign them into law isn't expected until May at the earliest. But, as time ticks down, the Center finds itself in need of a half-court buzzer beater, and you won't find it in the federal budget. When asked if there might be any relief for the school in President Obama's recent stimulus package, the Minnesota Department of Education replied, flatly, "No."
Despite the fact that the Center's success is documented not only by the star-power of its alums but by the national attention and funding it attracts in the form of grants and awards, the only line that now matters is that big one at the bottom. "During these economically challenging times," goes the Department of Education statement, "Governor Pawlenty is committed to transforming state government to become more cost-effective."
Shannon Hannigan has been the literary instructor for Arts High School juniors for 13 years. Since the proposed cuts were announced in the first week of February, she has been collecting testimonial letters from alums nationwide in an attempt to ammo up before the legislative session addresses the Center.
"These kids are no longer kids," she says. "They're lawyers, or they're in medical school. Everything. And a theme pops up in over half these letters: When they reached us, they had come to a point in their education where they were bored. Ready to quit. Even the smart, talented kids. Over and over again, these letters said that this is the place where they learned to love to learn again."
John Samels and Kai Benson are two of those kids. As Paper Tiger and MK Larada respectively, they spend their days and nights in the production end of the Doomtree hip-hop collective. They write the beats, design flyers, and lay out artwork for albums. Both agree that, without the Arts High School, they never would have made it.
"In typical high school situations, people are dying to get out, and they hate it," says Samels. "When it was time for me to graduate, it was a bummer. I didn't want to leave yet. If there isn't a place like that for people like us, we're missing out on huge opportunities all over the board. If there wasn't a place like that for me, I wouldn't be where I'm at, doing what I'm doing. No way."