The teens gather around a table at a Village Inn. Bright-eyed but armed with years of experience, they're here to talk about the Wasson High School "arts magnet," to which they devoted their high school years.
It's not a glowing review.
"We kind of went into the special ed classes of the regular world, and we were supposed to be "honors,'" 17-year-old Samantha Gavzy says.
Snickers and nods of agreement abound.
These kids were recruited for a magnet program, and went through arduous auditions to get in. Sabrina Gavzy, 15, says her parents were so proud when she was accepted that they bought her a new purse and took her out to dinner.
But now, Colorado Springs School District 11 says it's not sure that Wasson is, or ever really was, a magnet. The board of education isn't even sure what a magnet is, though a committee is working on that.
The magnet is broken into "strands": instrumental music, theater, dance, visual arts, video production and vocal music. Not all the strands are bad, the kids say. Visual arts, video production and drama, they agree, are excellent.
But there's a lot of imbalance. An Independent review of finances found, for instance, that this year's instrumental music expenses topped $10,000, while video production spent $5. Kids say visual arts chair Carol Shaw has spent her own money on student supplies.
And though instrumental music is better-funded, the students aren't satisfied.
"Our band's been the laughingstock," 16-year-old Jason Dandino says.
Several kids say they won't be returning to band next fall. Some say they don't want to start over with a new band director, but Joe Hansen won't be back (he'll be at Holmes Middle School). Hansen, who also served as magnet coordinator, lacked discipline and teaching skills, the kids say, and some felt put off by other subtleties.
"He carries around a Book of Mormon," 15-year-old Katie Seymour says. Other kids and at least two parents echo the claim. But D-11 spokesperson Elaine Naleski says Hansen would not have violated district policy by having the Book of Mormon inside the school.
Hansen could not be reached for comment, and did not respond to messages, Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
The band program, and the rest of the magnet, was more successful a few years ago. Under Paul Williamson, now the assistant principal, the band won competitions. But over the years, the students say, problems arose. Core-subject teachers and magnet teachers vied for the kids' time and energy, with grades suffering as a result. And magnet kids have seemed less committed.
"All of these people sitting at this table music, art is something in their lives that is extremely beneficial, and it's important for us to be together," 15-year-old Rachael Perry says. "It's important for us to feel comfort in each other and not be frustrated by the fact that half our band doesn't practice; half the people don't even care. The thing that let me down the most this year was the amount of people that don't care. They don't want to be there."
And then, they say, there's the disorganization and lack of standards. Magnet kids take a lot of field trips for competitions, using money from parents and fundraisers, but they say planning's been a problem for instance, trips this year were planned for the same days as prom and homecoming.
Sometimes, there were even safety concerns. Erin Seymour, 17, says she was left outside Wasson after a field trip at 11:30 p.m. A 16-year-old at the time, she would have been alone had a classmate not volunteered to stay with her until her mom came. Her mother, who complained to the school, confirms the incident.
Mapping out the future
Kids say they just want the program to be legitimate. Now. That's especially true for those who will be seniors and aren't sure what to write on their college applications.
"If it's not real, I guess you could write a note to your college," 17-year-old Kaitlin Porter suggests. "I'll just have to say I was in the so-called-magnet program."
The kids say they weren't impressed with a recent meeting with Principal Sean Dorsey and Deputy Superintendent Mike Poore, a meeting which, to their dismay, included Williamson. Because he created the magnet program, they say, he's not likely to listen to their input objectively.
The kids were planning their own meeting to discuss what they want from the magnet, including more support from teachers; more committed kids; a full-time band director; and a full-time magnet coordinator that isn't connected to any one program and therefore won't pick favorites. They also want better organization and clear records.
Most of all, next year, they want the magnet to be what it was supposed to be: The No. 1 arts program in the district.
"It's supposed to be the best," Katie Seymour says. "If it can't be the best, why are we calling ourselves a magnet school?"