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Doing a spontaneous cartwheel in class could get you in a lot of trouble in most high schools.

But on a recent chilly Friday at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, 10th-grader Shane Larson left his morning dance class barefoot, with a cartwheel and a smile when a school official wanted to talk to him.

And nobody said a word.

"I really love to dance," said Larson, who is in his second year at the school. "I can't picture myself going to a regular high school. It would be such a different environment."

The St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists is a popular charter high school run at downtown St. Paul's Landmark Center. Sponsored by the nearby Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, the school is targeted toward "aspiring pre-professional performing artists" and is bursting at the seams in its fourth year of operation.

The school opened in fall 2005 with 140 students, and is now at capacity with 400 in grades nine through 12.

While the charter school movement in Minnesota, its birthplace, has gotten mixed reviews in the 17 years since the first school opened, the conservatory has all the trademarks of successful charter schools: experienced school leadership, a rigorous academic curriculum and a niche that draws a passionate constituency to fill the school's classrooms.

"It provides authentic training for young people who are highly motivated in the arts, possibly as a career," said Wendy Lehr, the school's artistic director, who has had a long-running association with the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.

The school was originally the idea of former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, according to Terry Tofte, the school's executive director.

Kelly's son Reed is a dancer, and Kelly thought a performing arts program could benefit the city.

Tofte, an experienced school administrator, came to the school just before it opened. He had been superintendent of the Northfield School District, as well as the curriculum director for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.

He also had led the study in that district to create its popular 11th- and 12th-grade School of Environmental Studies magnet, which partnered with the Minnesota Zoo.

"I've always had a real strong interest in school choice," Tofte said. "I've learned a lot about what high school kids want in a school. Some of them are just looking for a focus -- they have a passion in something that the traditional school program doesn't address."

There are similar performing arts schools in the Twin Cities, such as the Main Street School for Performing Arts in Hopkins, which is also a charter school, and the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a statewide public school in Golden Valley where students can live. It serves grades 11 and 12.

There's also talk of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district starting a performing arts magnet school in the new Performing Arts Center under construction in Burnsville.

Tofte, a Burnsville resident, has given the district advice on the subject and has said he is seriously considering establishing another performing arts charter in the location if the Burnsville district decides to pass.

Students at the St. Paul Conservatory can focus on dance, musical theater, music or theater. They have an eight-hour school day, three hours of which are spent in arts programs. The school has also met all of its state testing goals in reading and mathematics.

"It's arts training combined with academics," said 11th-grader Natasha Roy, a theater student. "It challenges me artistically and academically."

There are 120 dance students, 100 music students, 120 theater students and 60 musical theater students.

Girls comprise 70 percent of the student body, which includes students from more than 40 school districts. Some students come to downtown St. Paul from as far away as New Prague and Buffalo.

"If you're really into performing arts and serious about it, this is the place to be," Tofte said recently, while sitting with school staff organizing what parts students would get in the January productions.

Added theater department chairman Brian Goranson: "We make it a part of our mission to support kids that are out in the community as working artists."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541



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