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Two months ago, Karen Romeo wandered the aisles of New York City's famed Carnegie Hall. It was a big event, but she didn't expect to get emotional. She'd been a professional violinist and had seen her share of world-class stages. The day, she figured, would be more for the kids.
There were almost 100 of them on stage that afternoon, rehearsing before an empty auditorium, preparing for a youth-ensemble concert in the evening. Most of the kids came from Flint, Michigan, but about fourteen were from a school in Boulder that Romeo had founded in 1990. It had been her idea to start a community school of the arts in a town that had never heard of one. That idea became the Boulder Arts Academy, and thanks to Romeo's hard work, it had grown tremendously in ten years: The school had started out with 25 students, most of whom took violin lessons with her, but now 850 kids were taking classes in music, ballet, theater and even the visual arts.
Romeo had become a respected figure in the world of community schools, consulting on the start-up of such institutions in West Virginia, Ohio and Texas. In 1998 she had taken a group of kids to Italy, to visit and perform in Rome, Venice and Florence. Last November, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts held its annual conference in Boulder, the first time the conference had ever been held in a Rocky Mountain state. Romeo and her school basked in the national spotlight.
Now she and her students were inside the most illustrious concert venue in the world. "I couldn't believe the excitement coming from the kids," she remembers. "The anticipation was simply incredible." That evening they played to a large and appreciative crowd.
So the day turned out to be emotional anyway, but not just because Romeo was proud of her kids. She also knew that this would be the last such trip she would ever take with them. In February Romeo had resigned as director of the Boulder Arts Academy. Her bosses say they are shocked she left so suddenly, almost of the blue. She says they shouldn't be, since they were the ones who forced her out.
Although Karen Romeo's mother was blind, she played the piano, so sound was always an important part of Karen's childhood in Washington Park. Classical music was always playing, and Romeo sang the melodies. At age eleven, she began learning the violin and proved a quick study. Between her junior and senior years in high school she attended the famed Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. For the first time, she was with kids who were better musicians than she was. She loved that. "It was like, 'Oh, the world is bigger.' I'm competitive. I like challenges."
She enrolled at Northwestern University on a violin scholarship, then went on to earn a master's degree in performance and a doctorate in music education from Ohio State. She spent several years teaching music at schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
At the Brattleboro Music Center in Vermont, she was introduced to her first community arts school -- a local center for music and arts education, open to the public. Brattleboro was a funky little town, half old mining outpost, half ex-hippie haven; the streets were full of folks with long, graying hair. The school was in an old Victorian. Upstairs bedrooms had become studios, the dining room housed the administrative offices, and the living room was part classroom and part recital hall.
Community schools of the arts have a long history in the United States. The first one was established in 1892, and today there are more than 275 such schools in 43 states, as well as in Canada and Bermuda. Brattleboro was one of the most famous; it had enjoyed a strong reputation since the 1940s. Romeo felt right at home. "These were my folks. I could function in that world."
She also believed she could transpose that world back home to Colorado. In 1990 she settled in Boulder and started up a private studio -- which is how kids in town were generally taught. She was enthusiastic about starting a school but needed the help of an established organization to back her up. So she went to see Bill Lightfoot, the executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic.
The orchestra had been a part of Boulder life since 1958, but it had never been much more than a dedicated group of amateurs playing concerts at Boulder High School, and by the mid-'80s, the ensemble was running $30,000 in the red. Lightfoot had been hired in 1988, after years as a performer with the Honolulu Symphony, to turn things around. He says now that the Boulder Philharmonic was "perceived to be in worse shape than it was"; however, he promptly started a fundraising drive that earned back the deficit and renewed confidence in the orchestra.
In the mid- and late '80s, the orchestra paid its players a paltry $6 a night for six performances in an eight-month season. Special events backfired. During one of the Broncos' aborted Super Bowl runs, the orchestra rented the CU Events Center, a facility that could hold about 4,000 people, in anticipation of hosting a Broncos victory party. During a dress rehearsal, Lightfoot's predecessor showed up and explained to the players that the concert would have to be canceled due to problems with ticket sales.