Marketa Hancova’s memories of catch-as-catch-can housecleaning and halting English are dimmed by the hard work and persistence that marks her immigration to America almost 20 years ago. San Diego–specifically Platt College, where Hancova is dean of education–is the richer for her residency and her love of culture, instilled from day one in her native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). A thick Eastern European accent frames her excellent adopted tongue; her eyes shift and widen as she draws comparisons between domestic and foreign arts education. Her allegiances on the topic may lie with her native country, but her life’s work has taken the bulk of its shape a third of the world away.
This may seem off-point for a story about Downtown’s stature as a cultural resource, and in the long run, it probably is. But if the city’s developers want to build the world-class urban center they say they do, they’d be well advised to read the material between the lines.
Hancova is an avid advocate of center-city culture as a teaching aid, a path to educational excellence and, by extension, to a well-rounded citizenry. Symphony Towers; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the San Diego Repertory, Spreckels, Balboa, Civic and Old Globe theaters: Hancova and her students visit them regularly as the real-life complement to a national education system that otherwise prepares its target populations for mediocrity. The idea is to stimulate and inspire artistic thought, enhancing the quality of classwork and the depth of the human experience.
Platt, a 300-student Rolando-area school offering degree and diploma programs in graphic and web design, multimedia, three-dimensional animation and digital video, has left its mark on the city core. The students have designed the programs and all printing material for the Rep’s last five seasons; a second exhibit of their work at the Central library has just ended; and their designs are on display four times a year in the foyer of Horton Plaza’s Lyceum Theatre. They’ve also been integral to visual-arts programs at Silver Gate and Tierrasanta elementaries and have exhibited prominently at the Del Mar Fair. Hancova even helps spearhead trips abroad, having accompanied a group of students to Spain last year.
The world, after all, is the only authentic campus there is.
“What gives me perspective,” the 45-year-old Hancova said, “is the fact that I come from Europe. Even though I’m from a [formerly] communist country, the education was wonderful. It seems luxurious compared to what we have here. I was exposed to the arts so much. Research [does] show the correlation between being exposed to the arts and academic success. The facts are absolutely there.”
She’s right. Wholesale studies reflect both sides of the picture — arts-based curricula yield higher standardized test scores and greater critical thinking; take ’em away, and academic success plummets as dropout rates increase. The latter can’t augur well for California’s kids. In 2007, the SRI research institute reported that 89 percent of the state’s schools didn’t offer sequential courses in the four artistic disciplines — dance, music, theater and the visual arts — during the 2005-06 academic year. Moreover, although state law requires such instruction, 29 percent of the schools surveyed offered no instruction in any discipline during that period.
“I am getting here at the college students who are, unfortunately in many cases, [culturally] inept,” Hancova said. “And it’s not their fault. [Elementary and secondary] school doesn’t fulfill the role that it should, to sophisticate the students in every avenue. Each student has an inner story. If it stops at ninth grade and you don’t cultivate it, you’re just stuck on one level, and you never grow.
“I think that’s a crime.”
English composition; introduction to algebra; environmental science; film and society; human behavior; career development; a host of such courses that seem to have little in common with graphic design: The Platt curriculum addresses that crime accordingly, just as the Downtown field trips foster the same awareness. A recent music class found Hancova appealing for ballet ticket money; in the same breath, she extolled the virtues of a 1992 Pavarotti-Sting duet and rhapsodized to a clip from “Madam Butterfly,” hailing the Puccini opera as “music nobody can be offended by.
“C’mon, my friends! You know this!” she chided as she sought responses on the Lutheran revolution and the Renaissance years. As it turns out, they did know it, offering supplemental material in the form of some pretty decent questions. And that dropout rate? Hancova said it’s at around 15 percent at Platt; other such schools sometimes cite their own figures at 80 or above.
Maybe it’s the thought of next year’s odyssey abroad that keeps everybody around. Or it might be the prospect of that introductory algebra class, which everybody knows is every student’s perennial favorite throughout the solar system, hands down. Hancova would like to think the Downtown jaunts are at least fueling a lot of the interest. If they are, then she’s hit on something her European counterparts have known for decades — something San Diego’s contractors have in at least one instance let slip.
In late 2006, Ion Theatre Company left Downtown’s New World Stage for the last time, faced with a $50,000 code compliance bill and the daunting prospect of seeking another home. The group had been in residence only five months, moving in with the blessing of Centre City Development Corporation, Downtown’s development arm on the city’s behalf. Yet the city proceeded to send an army of inspectors, each with a different opinion on code conformity — one thing led to another, and Ion was soon on its way to Mission Valley, where it remains today.
One less Downtown attraction for the potential homeowner clientele that seeks a true urban lifestyle in all its forms. One fewer set of shops and restaurants that might have attracted Ion patronage and thus enriched the center-city cultural and residential scenes. Above all, one less “classroom” for Platt to visit in a city core already shockingly bereft of schools. While Platt has a solid set of wheels in motion, its frequent destination often seems intent on spinning its own.
By Martin Jones Westlin