Community School of the Arts work on track, charter approval could change construction

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 727 views 

Things are moving ahead and staying on track for the Community School of the Arts in Fort Smith to open the first performing arts high school in Arkansas, according to Dr. Rosilee Russell, founder and executive director.

“The construction is going really well,” Russell said Thursday (July 20). “There is construction going on every day. Some days it’s really quite busy out there.”

CSA broke ground March 17, 2021, on a new facility near the U.S. Marshals Museum on Riverfront Drive in Fort Smith. The land for the new school, 11 acres north of the museum, was donated to the school by the Robbie Westphal family. Construction of “more than half of the building,” including the lobby area and continuing to the music and visual arts areas are expected to be complete late this year, Russell said.

“We are planning to move into that area in January for our current programs,” Russell said. “We are trying to work around semesters, to move in during the break before the spring semester begins.”

With that goal in mind, construction is moving at as fast a pace as is possible, she said.

“The only thing that might slow us down is if something happens with the materials on the supply side. We have had some supply issues,” she said.

The plan is to have the entire new Center for Creative Arts finished by fall 2024 in time to open the facility as a new charter high school for the performing arts.

“We are feeling very positive. The high school has a lot of support. We hope to know in fall (September) if we receive a charter,” Russell said. “If everything goes as we expect it, we will be the first performing arts high school in the state. That is exciting.”

Legislation signed by Gov. Sarah Sanders this spring promoting speciality schools and school choice led the Community School of the Arts to change plans from offering half or partial day opportunities to for high school students wishing to pursue more education in the arts to opening a full-day school for students in ninth through 12th grades. The Community School of the Arts has been pursuing becoming a charter school since then. They will make a presentation before the Charter Authorizing Panel in August, Russell said.

The school hopes to open for grades 9-11 in fall 2024 with 200-250 students, she said. She added that for the first year, the school won’t have a 12th grade, but that grade will be added the following year when the first year of 11th graders moves up a grade.

The Center was initially planned to house arts programs for young children through high school students and adults. While after school programs are still planned, earlier plans called for the Center to be home to specialized programs for high school students that would operate daily as students attend from regional school districts and receive high school credits at their participating school.

The new 40,000-square-foot building on the river will include high-tech classrooms, teaching studios, art galleries, recording studio, film and digital animation labs, dance studios, culinary labs, black box theater and a 350-seat theater and performance hall.

If it becomes a charter high school, some of the space will have to be reconfigured and some additions may have to be made, Russell said.

“Having students here all day and it being a high school that offers core classes along with arts classes, we have to have certain things,” Russell said.

Those include a cafeteria, additional classrooms and things like a chemistry lab, she said. Most of those, even the cafeteria, can be adapted from current plans for the building.

“We have a culinary arts area (in the plans). Initially, that can serve as our cafeteria. We can have core classes meet in half the space while arts classes are meeting in the other half. Or we can have all core classes at one time of day and all arts classes at the other,” Russell said. “But we will have to meet and decide what we are going to do and how we are going to do it to add a cafeteria and other space for the years following our initial opening, so we can grow.”

Of course adding space will add cost, something Russell said they will have to consider when making their plans on how best to proceed in the future. The first phase of the building project was estimated to cost $10 million in 2021. The school has raised more than $10 million for the building’s capital campaign and is working to raise around $3 million this year.

The cost of the building including the second half that should be complete by the end of summer 2024 is now estimated at around $22 million, Russell said.

If the charter is approved and the Center for the Creative Arts becomes the state’s first performing arts high school, the after-school programs offered by the Community School of the Arts will continue as they are now, Russell said.