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School of Hard Knocks

In four performances in early June, the cast and crew of North High School's Zoot Suit Riots reprised their show for those who missed it the first time around or couldn't get enough of playwright Luis Valdez's pachuquismo-packed script ("The Next Stage," April 22). And while the curtain has now officially closed on Zoot Suit, the drama isn't entirely over.

By the time the set was finally struck, Zoot Suit had been seen by more than 3,000 people, had raised more than $25,000 for the school's theater club and had landed star Elvis Nuñez in the pages of the New York Times. The show was so successful, in fact, that it motivated North administrators to make drama a cornerstone of the beleaguered school's curriculum. During Zoot Suit's debut weekend, principal Darlene LeDoux told a capacity crowd that the school was preparing to launch a full-fledged theater department in the fall.

Teacher/director Jose Mercado had planned to spend his summer getting ready to launch that program. But he's had to improvise since early June, when LeDoux informed him that the theater department was not to be. Budgets are too tight, she said, and classes in other core disciplines too crowded to justify the expansion of an arts-centered field of study. In fact, the theater offerings at North will shrink during the upcoming year: Beginning and advanced classes will be combined, and the two units will have to accommodate 35 to 40 students each. (Partly because of Zoot's success, more students signed up for acting classes than ever before in the school's history.) Mercado will teach those classes as well as two freshman-level English classes. He says he's already scaling back the large dramatic production he'd planned to present in the fall.

"In a way, we're a victim of our own success," he says. "We've got more students than ever who are interested in drama, but we'll actually have less of an opportunity to work with them. They'll all be grouped together. It'll be more paperwork and homework for me, and less time spent with the kids."

LeDoux, who says she's had to eliminate five positions in the English Language Acquisition program and fire a full-time physical-education teacher, points out that many teachers at North deal with large classes. Overcrowding in the English department is a big part of the reason North's plans for drama were nixed: LeDoux couldn't afford to hire a part-time teacher to carry Mercado's literature load.

"The wishes and hopes and dreams were that Jose would teach all drama classes," she says. "But when we're reducing so many people, reducing dollars, the reality is that all of our wishes and hopes and dreams can't always come true.

"I had to tell Jose, 'Welcome to our world,'" she continues. "We can't have a person having ten or fifteen kids and the other ones having fifty. We have to be able to balance those out. No one's a prima donna."

Across town, another Denver Public Schools educator has survived a recent reality check: Michael Corey, who began teaching social studies at South High School in 1999, was reinstated after being placed on administrative leave for more than two months ("Buttoned Up," May 20). Corey, a New Yorker whose provocative teaching methods have earned him prominent awards as well as the ire of students, parents and administrators, will return to South in the fall. Bumped from his beloved civics department, Corey will teach classes in travel and leisure for the school's business curriculum. He plans to keep pushing to return to his roost teaching advanced-placement social studies classes. "I guess I'm supposed to be happy to have a job," he says, "so I'll be good."

 
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