By Richard Jerome
Updated March 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Yasmeen Caminero’s throat is still sore from a recent bout of pneumonia, but she holds the high notes on “La Vida Es un Carnaval” so long that the horn players shake their heads in wonder. Leading a Latin-music ensemble through the salsa number, she twirls and shimmies with her bandmates, filling the tiny rehearsal room with her outsize presence. “Anybody can sing,” says Caminero, 18, “but not as many people feel it and portray it as honestly as I do.” Or, as fellow vocalist Joel Canales, 17, puts it: “She’s the kind of girl that has that Boom!”

That just makes the senior a typical student at Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Known to its students simply as Arts, this aging inner-city edifice could well be renamed Grammy High. Among the nominees for Feb. 23’s awards are no less than three alums: singers Norah Jones (Class of ’97) and Erykah Badu (’89) and jazz trumpet virtuoso Roy Hargrove (’88). Other grads have snagged Grammys in years past, including members of the polka-rock band Brave Combo and the gospel group God’s Property. All told, more than 80 percent of the school’s graduates receive college arts scholarships. “We push the envelope with all our kids,” says principal Kenn Franklin. “We say, ‘Hey, you’re great, you’re talented—but look what you could do.’ ”

The secret is an uncommonly nurturing environment that emphasizes individual expression. “It was so free and natural, when I got to Arts I felt like running and screaming,” says Badu, 32, who came from a Catholic school. “With each month, your relationship with your craft and your teachers grew.” Adds Jones: “It’s a cool place to be.”

Kids from all over Dallas attend the school, which has existed in its current incarnation since 1976. (In the days of segregation, it was the city’s only high school for blacks.) To become part of the 700-member student body, performers must audition and visual artists must present a portfolio; 40 percent make the cut. All the more remarkable, then, that the class of 2003 includes two sisters, actress twins Monet and Maurie Chandler, 17. “We work as a team,” says Monet.

The youngest of five children born to David, 53, a hairdresser, and Shelia, 48, an IBM customer-support rep, the girls are veteran troupers: models at 5, extras in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn at 6 and, at 10, regulars on TV’s Barney. In school by 7:45 a.m., the Chandlers take three hours of acting in addition to academics and often rehearse until 8 p.m. They earn A’s, serve on the student council and volunteer at a local hospital on Wednesday evenings. At Arts, such a work ethic is the norm. “The ones who make it are driven,” says Otis Gray, 32, director of the electronic music program, who taught music theory to Norah Jones.

For many Arts students, a hard-scrabble background spurs the will to succeed. “I’d rather be dancing than anything else,” says junior Chris Vo, 17, who does so for about eight hours a day. The son of now-divorced Vietnamese immigrants, he was raised in a rough section of Dallas by his mother, Phuong, 41, who works as a waitress. A dancer since fourth grade, Vo also maintains a 4.0 average in advanced-placement courses. “I really want to be with the Paul Taylor Dance Company someday, but I might go to med school to have something to fall back on,” he says. “I guess dance is a venting for me—frustration, anger. Even when I’m super-happy, I just dance.”

At other schools, that kind of passion can earn a kid a reputation as an oddball. But at Arts, says junior Matt Marantz, “you’re more accepted because there are more people like you.” At 17, the tenor-sax whiz—who has already won seven prestigious awards from Downbeat magazine—plays 60 dates a year with a school jazz combo. “We’ll come home from a four-hour gig and he’ll go upstairs and play for two hours,” says his father, Bart, 52, a trumpeter and Arts jazz teacher. (Mom Sara, 46, is a classical pianist.) “It’s a total and complete obsession.”

As singing is for Yasmeen Caminero. The daughter of Regla Hernandez, 49, a Cuban-born homemaker, and Raul Caminero, 47, a Dominican nightclub owner, now divorced, she is saving up for a move to Manhattan—where she hopes to become the next Gloria Estefan. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I really want to represent my people,” says Caminero, whose dream was born when, at the age of 3, she first sang in her father’s club. “The response made me go crazy. I knew from that moment I wanted to have that power.”

Richard Jerome

Ellise Pierce in Dallas