The Community School of the Arts broke ground Wednesday (March 17) on a new facility near the U.S. Marshals Museum on Riverfront Drive in Fort Smith. The new school, located on 11 acres north of the museum, was donated to the school by the Robbie Westphal family.
The new 30,000-square-foot building will include, classroom space, a recording studio, a 350-seat theater, teaching studios and more, said Dr. Rosilee Walker Russell, founder and executive director. And that’s just for the first phase, which organizers hope will be completed and ready for students in late August 2022. More space will be added in later phases, Walker said.
“I am thrilled to be next to the Marshals Museum. I hope the two of us will be the catalyst to get the riverfront developed,” Russell said.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said the school will add to the progressive and innovative education offered in the Fort Smith area.
“What a time to talk about education in Fort Smith, Arkansas,” McGill said. “The Community School of the Arts is one of the main pieces of our education puzzle in Fort Smith, a big piece. … We have been waiting for this amazing work. We thank you. This is going to be amazing.”
The new CSA Center for the Creative Arts will offer instruction and hands-on experience in culinary arts, film, 21st century digital art and visual arts, musical theater, music and dance.
“Who knows, one student coming here might design the next big video game and work with a buddy who writes the musical score for it,” Russell said.
The school had more than 800 students before the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions hit in March 2020. OF those, about 300 were through afterschool programs onsite at CSA’s location, 200 N. 19th St., another 150 were taught by teachers at the school at their home schools through an outreach program for students in underserved areas, and 300 were private or homeschool students contracted with the school, Russell said.
The new facility will allow the school to reach about 1,000 students. This includes 500 high school students in the afternoons through a partnership with their respective high schools and 500 preschool through 12th-grade students in the afterschool programs, Russell said.
“We have a working partnership with 30 school districts in the 60-mile radius of Fort Smith,” she said.
High school students wanting to attend the Center will spend the morning at their high schools and the afternoon at the center where they will take courses in their discipline and earn three high school credits per year toward high school graduation, Russell said.
“Many of the small school districts in our area, like Lavaca or Hackett, don’t have the opportunity for the arts or for many disciplines of the arts. This will give their students the chance to take the courses. We have worked out partnerships with them,” she said.
Each of the disciplines will have one to two lead teachers who will work part time in the afternoon programs and part time in the afterschool programs. There will be “many” part-time and adjunct instructors as well. Russell and Dr. Rick Foti, chairman of the CAS board, said most of the students going through the school will not go on to have a professional career in the arts, but the programs at the center will prepare them for what they want to do.
“This opens up a range of opportunities for these students,” Foti said, noting that the arts teach students life skills and a well-rounded education.
“And if they really love and are serious about the arts, they will learn this is how to do it,” Russell said.
No matter the career path students take once leaving high school, they need a state-of-the-art facility, she said.
“Most schools and universities don’t think twice about having a state-of-the-art facility for sports or a sport, but they don’t give arts the same. Arts deserve the same. Kids in arts should have just as much opportunity for the instruction and facilities as those in athletics,” Russell said.
Considering it’s just been five years since CSA started in Fort Smith, being able to start on a new school is exciting and a bit surprising, Foti said. The school grew from the Academy of the Arts, which was a program offered to preschool through 12th-grade students through the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. In July 2016, the program left the university and CSA was created. The first phase of the school project comes with a price tag of $10 million, with a capital expense of $7.5 million to $8 million, Russell said.
“We have 60% of the first phase of fundraising already,” Foti said.
Before fundraising went public, the school had raised about $6 million, $4 million toward the capital campaign, through grants and donations, he said. And CSA has a plan for sustainability, Russell added.
“That we’ve done this is a testament to the vision of the leader, the wonderful volunteers and the true value of the service they offer. People see the real benefit of this school in their lives and the lives of children in the area,” Foti said.
WER Architects of Fayetteville and Little Rock are the architects for the project. Turn Key Construction Management of Fort Smith is the building contractor.