Farewell to the Fighting Pianists

The sports program at West Palm's art school may soon exit stage left

Soccer Coach Tom Ruth's cleats make a rhythmic clicking in the hallways of the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts. The sound is foreign to this West Palm Beach public school for aspiring performers.

The quiet patter of ballerina slippers, now that's familiar. But cleats in the hallways are as alien as teenagers in letter jackets. "There's not a lot of students here who will go on to play sports in college," admits Ruth, who wears a T-shirt and jogging shorts that give him away as the faculty's resident jock. His voice echoes in the stairwell as he heads to his second-floor room for history class. "If they come, most of them transfer pretty quick."

Standing behind his desk, which is cluttered with student essays and grade books, Ruth brags about Dreyfoos' few sporting successes. "The boys soccer team was over .500 last fall," he says proudly. "And the girls won their first post-season game last year."

Heather Ratcliff, a 15-year-old who attends Dreyfoos, sports the Jaguars' colors at soccer practice
Colby Katz
Heather Ratcliff, a 15-year-old who attends Dreyfoos, sports the Jaguars' colors at soccer practice

But, Ruth concedes, the Dreyfoos Jaguars don't have much to boast about sports-wise. Among the school's most-notable achievements: In 1998, the girls soccer team broke a 49-game losing streak that had spanned five seasons. And the boys squad was best-known as the county's perennial loser until it switched a few years ago to playing in the fall, when most high schools field football teams.

Still, it's not a win-loss record that may spell the end for sports at Dreyfoos. School officials are pondering eliminating sports to make more time for the arts. In December, an 11-member committee of teachers and parents recommended dropping athletics at Dreyfoos. The group voted to install a college-like intramural program that wouldn't pit the school against artistically illiterate athletes from across town.

Second-year Principal Ellen VanArsdale is mulling the idea. She didn't return phone calls last week seeking comment. The principal already has one sticky situation on her hands since the school district recently investigated the audition process for new students, which some say is too subjective.

If VanArsdale follows the committee's advice, it'll be the first time students at the 95-year-old campus haven't competed in sports. Dreyfoos operates in the city's second schoolhouse, which is located on a hill overlooking CityPlace. One of the campus buildings was opened in 1908 for the town's pioneer children and became the county's first integrated school in 1970. In 1997, the school district spent $29.5 million to refurbish the three Mediterranean- and art-deco-style buildings that now make up its campus. The district renamed the school for Dreyfoos, a former television station owner, after he gave $1 million to the 1,300-student arts program.

But the renovations largely ignored the athletic programs. The soccer teams, for instance, practice on a tiny field with no lights for night games. And the Jaguars change in dingy portable buildings, though new locker rooms, which could be used for gym classes, are under construction.

If Dreyfoos drops sports, it will become only the second public high school in South Florida to do so. A similar program in Miami, the New World School of the Arts, does not have sports teams. In Broward County, the 400 high school students in the arts program can participate in sports only because they attend classes at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale.

Admittedly, Dreyfoos has never fielded teams in the big attention-getting sports like baseball, football, and basketball. It currently offers swimming, golf, cross country, soccer, track, tennis, and bowling (think Fred Flintstone meets Picasso). Dreyfoos has managed to produce a few accolades in those sports -- two swimmers made the all-county team last month, and the bowling squad took second in the county last year. Athletic Director Rick Farquhar says the school doesn't record win-loss records. "You still have to try to win," says Farquhar, who juggles his time between sports and teaching math, "but that's not the number-one goal."

Dreyfoos students have so far been relatively apathetic on the issue of whether sports should survive. A handful of girls, hanging out in front of the school recently, claimed no one would really miss it. That response was odd coming from a group that included soccer players waiting for practice in shin pads and the Jaguars white-on-black jerseys.

"No one comes to the games anyway," said 16-year-old Amber San Roman, sitting with her legs crossed on a book bag. "So I don't think they'd care if it disappeared."

"Secretly," added Heather Ratcliff, a 15-year-old aspiring writer, "it should be intramural anyway because we're so bad. But don't tell anybody."

Then one of the young women recalled that the junior varsity team recently won a game, which doesn't happen often. The group cheered. Then came a laugh. "Yeah, we don't care much if we win or not," Roman admits.

It's not that Dreyfoos students aren't competitive, 16-year-old Jessica Rader explained. Students show their spirit in recitals or art shows, and the theater troupe contends for statewide honors. Those activities are fiercely contested because students dream of attending Julliard School or performing on Broadway. Some even enroll in community college classes at night to boost their credentials.

And the art school makes it difficult for students to play sports. The daily class schedule lasts 7.5 hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Athletes must skip class for afternoon games, something few are willing to do. "It's, like, take a piano major," Rader said. "They're not going to risk breaking their hand on a soccer ball and then miss some important recital."

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