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New head of LACHSA talks about famous arts high school's future

Students pay attention in class at the L.A. County High School for the Arts' new three-level facility, which opened in 2013. The school has a new principal, Mitzi Lizarraga, who started in November.
Students pay attention in class at the L.A. County High School for the Arts' new three-level facility, which opened in 2013. The school has a new principal, Mitzi Lizarraga, who started in November.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

A new principal with new plans now heads the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the well-known arts high school that saw the resignation of its top administrator in the summer.

Mitzi Lizarraga stepped into her job on Nov. 3, succeeding George Simpson who had led the school since 2008. Simpson left the post observing that officials with the Los Angeles County Office of Education that runs the school had a different vision for the school than when he was first hired.

LACHSA is regarded as one of the top arts schools in the region, counting among its former students such famous entertainers as singer Josh Groban and actress Jenna Elfman.

RELATED: LACHSA students celebrate a $31 million home of their own

Lizarraga joined the school from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, where she served as its principal. She also previously led the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles Unified's new arts branch leader also hails from Duke Ellington.

Lizarraga recently talked with KPCC by phone. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

You're coming to The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. How different is this new job?

LACHSA and Duke Ellington are much more similar than I would say the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, so in a way I feel as if I'm coming back home. The major difference is this school, LACHSA, has a heightened focus on a conservatory-based training in the arts and the level of visiting artists who come in to conduct master classes is endless. The alumni who come in to give back is almost every day. There's just a different level of involvement that wasn't quite at the San Diego school.

What's your background in the arts and how have the arts shaped your life?

Probably from the moment that I was conceived, the arts have been a part of me. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and so the Smithsonian museums were part of my playground. As a third-grader, I remember hearing the National Symphony perform and I thought: how do all these instruments create such beautiful music?

I also grew up in a household where music was always being played. Or dancing, dancing was really something that I loved doing. I remember taking tap classes with my brothers. They finally realized that they wanted to do something else like sports, but I continued dancing. I danced and had the opportunity to have great teachers such as Debbie Allen and Charles Augins, who choreographed "Five Guys Named Moe" on Broadway. I also went on to New York University as a dance major, and to dance in the dance company of Bertram Ross. He was one of the first male dancers with Martha Graham.

So the arts have always been a part of me, and I have always wanted to work with young people. I taught dance in Washington, D.C., I taught dance in New York, and the notion of bringing these opportunities in a public school setting was just something that I've always wanted to do. 

What's your strategy for your first year leading LACHSA? Is this a time of assessment or a time for change?

I don't think it's ever a good idea to jump right in and make changes. That's like having somebody come into your kitchen and you're making this incredible dinner and that person's just going to come in and take over — as opposed to coming in and saying how can I best bring my skills and my attention to make this recipe an even better recipe? Let me work with you collaboratively.

I will be spending time, as I have for the past six weeks, making a lot of observations and taking a lot of notes. And having many, many conversations, which I've already begun. I plan to honor the great successes of this school and at the same time focus on those areas that need a little bit more attention.

What are your bigger-picture plans for the school? What would you like to put in place?

Some of the areas that I want to pay attention to will be in the area of our academics. We have varying levels of strong classes on the academic side — I'm speaking of English, math, science and social studies. I would like to strengthen every single class and calibrate the curriculum so that if a ninth-grader switches from one English class and the following semester goes to another ninth-grade class, it's a seamless thread. I want to make sure that there is an articulated and calibrated scope and sequence of what we expect our students to know and to understand and master by the time they have finished with their education here at LACHSA.

I would like to also have attention paid to the reality that we live in an incredibly diverse metropolitan city and that this school is on the campus of California State University, LA, and it's also in East LA. We really should talk about how we can continue to attract more students from the East LA area. We need to continue to strengthen our visibility in the middle schools, and help build confidence in young people who might think that they could not possibly go to a school like this. It's really about helping to build their awareness of the possibilities that are out there. 

I want to really strengthen the cinematic arts program. That's one of my big visions, and also I want to work to really raise more revenue because we're always under-budgeted or the flip side over spending, depends on how you look at it. 

I know the school recently moved to its own building. How is the space working for students and faculty so far?

We're delighted to have our own space. But you know when you build anything, by the time you move in, you realize it's still too small, it's not large enough. So we are fortunate with our relationship with CSULA that we still use some of the classrooms on the campus.

Prior to having our own building we were all so scattered throughout this college campus that I wonder how many students really knew all the students in their class. But now we are in the halls, we are passing each other on the stairwell, and I think it's great that we're here.

When George Simpson left the school, and he noted that he felt he had a different vision for the school than Los Angeles County Office of Education officials. What's your relationship in that area been like?

I can't respond to George's vision or his experiences with LACOE, but I know that in my short time with LACHSA I am very comfortable with interfacing with central office. And you have to because LACHSA is a part of LACOE, LACHSA is LACOE. I don't see a separation. The reality is that we do need them, the students need them, the teachers need them. We cannot operate without LACOE's involvement.

And in my short time here I have felt a lot of support from LACOE, whether it's dealing with the budget issues, or dealing with personnel matters, or just trying to navigate through what we need. 

Granted, I'm on my honeymoon period, but first impressions are lasting impressions sometimes. 

Applications for the public high school's fall 2015 school year are due Jan. 16. Information is available online.

To see one of several upcoming performances or events at LACHSA, visit its website for ticketing information.