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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVE PEROZEK Heather Wright, high school principal at the Arkansas Arts Academy, takes a tour of a building under construction on her school's campus Feb. 15. The building is set to open to students in August.

ROGERS -- Andrew Sweet, an 11th-grader at Arkansas Arts Academy, described attending school on a construction site as "grueling."

Photo by Dave Perozek
Mary Ley, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Arts Academy, explains features of the new building under construction on the academy’s high school campus Feb. 15 while taking a tour of the site.
Photo by Dave Perozek
Steve Zimmerman of Northwest Arkansas Sheet Metal works inside the building under construction on the Arkansas Arts Academy’s high school campus Feb. 15.

Still, there's excitement brewing about the work, which is transforming the academy's downtown high school campus, he said.

School features

Here are some of the features to be included in Arkansas Arts Academy’s high school once the renovation and construction project is complete:

• Bicycle storage space

• Black box theater

• Ceramic art studio

• Courtyard

• Culinary arts kitchen

• Dance studio

• Orchestra room

• Recording studio

Source: Staff report

"It's a very, very important project for the school, expanding it and opening it for more people, and opening it for more art opportunities, specifically," said Sweet, 18, of Rogers. "It's just going to be a great building."

The $22 million project began last summer. It has involved a mix of demolition, renovation and new construction. The school's square footage will grow from 56,000 to 99,000, allowing increases in enrollment and course offerings.

Chief Executive Officer Mary Ley said her dream is to turn the academy into the "best arts school in the nation."

The current construction and renovation phase is set to be done by Aug. 1, the first day of next school year. Renovation of another building will begin at that time and take until January.

Meanwhile, classes have continued on site for the 240 students in grades nine through 12.

Six portable buildings on the west side of campus provide 12 temporary classrooms. Students also attend classes inside the building awaiting renovation. A walkway built out of shipping containers -- playfully referred to as the "Path to Enlightenment" -- helps students traverse the campus safely.

"One of the main challenges for this project is we have two separated buildings that are active for the students that we're constructing in between," said Don Werner, project superintendent for Flintco, the firm managing the job. "So we have to maintain their safety and their services and give them a pathway to get between the buildings."

Sweet, who transferred into the academy last school year, said dealing with the construction noise is a challenge. Teachers, besides putting up with the noise, also must park about two blocks away during construction because of the lack of parking space on campus. The school rents parking spaces at First United Methodist Church.

Laura Hansen, a ninth-grader from Bella Vista, said the pounding of last week's rain on the roofs of the portable buildings was a bit distracting. But she remains upbeat about the changes that will bring more spacious classrooms and allow the school to expand its course offerings, especially those related to the arts.

"The better the space we have, the easier it is for people to be dedicated and really focus," said Hansen, 15.

Ley said construction workers and students have demonstrated a mutual respect. Flintco gave students a chance to create personalized ceramic tiles, which were placed in the foundation when it was poured in the fall. Those tiles will be inside the school's main corridor.

More space will mean more course offerings. Advanced Placement courses will increase from seven to 15. Courses in creative writing, piano, modern jazz, culinary arts, fashion design and graphic design are among those being added for the 2018-19 school year, Ley said.

"We are going to offer things that traditional public schools don't offer," she said.

Arkansas Arts Academy is one of the state's oldest open-enrollment charter schools. It opened in 2001 as Benton County School of the Arts before changing its name in 2014. Charter schools are public schools. They do not charge tuition.

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel in December reviewed and approved the Arts Academy's application for a 10-year renewal of its charter.

Ley said she's proud of the fact that, unlike other arts schools in the nation, there's no need to audition to get in. Enrollment is determined by a lottery system.

The high school project will allow seventh- and eighth-graders to move to the campus from the academy's K-8 campus on South 12th Street, which frees up space to add a total of about 120 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

While seventh- and eighth-graders will be on the high school campus, they will be separated from the older students in their own section of the facility for the most part.

Jessica Wood, 17, an 11th-grader from Rogers, said she was intimidated by the thought of moving on to the high school when she was in the eighth grade, which she perceived to be a "different world." The fact the middle-schoolers will be on campus and have an opportunity to take higher-level courses there will be good for them, she said.

Ley said the school borrowed the money for the construction project. Officials bet they could cover the cost by attracting more students.

"We rolled the dice," she said.

The gamble appears to be paying off. The school has 1,050 students for the beginning of next year, Ley said. The school's charter caps enrollment at 1,225. More than 600 students are on the lottery list to get in, a record for the school, according to Ley.

The state pays public schools a certain amount per student enrolled. This school year that amount is $6,713. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, do not receive money from property taxes.

The only part of the high school not addressed in this project is the performing arts center. The school needs another $2 million to properly renovate the center, Ley said.

Jim Young, who lives by Beaver Lake, is a potter and art therapist who taught pottery for most of four decades. He is helping Ley design a first-class ceramics studio for the high school. When he drives into town, he goes out of his way to check progress on the building.

"It excites me to see it go up. It's impressive," Young said.

It's just one example of how Northwest Arkansas' art scene is growing and thriving, he said. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is planning to build a cluster of arts buildings known as the Windgate Art and Design District. Northwest Arkansas Community College is planning to open an integrated design lab next year, which will provide more space for several programs, including the fine arts. Then, of course, there's the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

"I see art all over the place, changing the nature of Northwest Arkansas and changing it fast and for the better," Young said.

Abigale Houchins, 15, a 10th-grader from Lowell, has attended the Arts Academy since kindergarten.

"It's exciting to see we're growing and that change is happening," Houchins said. "I just can't believe I'm here to see it, and I get to spend the rest of my high school career here with awesome people."

NW News on 02/26/2018

Print Headline: Arts Academy students work amid construction

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