Arts school takes on new digs, new role

VAPAC moves to old Army Depot, where students have lots of space

Photo By Jill Wagner

Talk about a turbulent year. Over the past 12 months, the Sacramento City Unified School District’s 20-year-old visual and performing arts program – or VAPAC, as it’s more commonly known – tussled with the school board and then with the St. HOPE Academy that took over VAPAC’s former digs at Sacramento High School. Over the summer, VAPAC pulled itself up by its roots and transplanted itself in a new location at the former Sacramento Army Depot. And to top it all off, VAPAC transitioned into a new administrative status as a charter school, with a larger degree of autonomy, in the process. (Wow!)

All those changes, coming together in a matter of months, pushed VAPAC’s administrators, teaching staff and students pretty close to the limit.

But now that the program is settling into its spacious new digs, VAPAC’s situation is stabilizing, and things are looking up.

“We met a lot of roadblocks, but the alternatives (to this transition) were something we couldn’t live with. We’re a feisty group – we’re not faint of heart,” said drama teacher Patrick Stratton.

VAPAC found its new home due to timely assistance from Dick Fischer, who is in charge of redeveloping the former Sacramento Army Depot, now known as Depot Park.

It happened like this. Over the summer, VAPAC – having lost its former home at Sac High – desperately needed a new home. And Fischer, who owns U.S. National Leasing (the company that holds the lease on the old Army Depot), had space – about 1.07 million square feet of space in all, and plenty of that total is still available to be leased.

“We have about 75 tenants here, ranging from a call center for the Department of Motor Vehicles to trucking companies and the construction trades,” Fischer explained. “Simply speaking, we are celebrating diversity here, and we felt that the addition of a charter school at Depot Park would be a great complement to what’s going on.”

“I’m also interested in the arts, as a good citizen,” Fischer added. “And I’m really honored to have VAPAC here.”

So Fischer and VAPAC’s leadership quite simply “made it work,” hammering out the details on the fly.

“We finally signed a lease on this building toward the very end of August – the Thursday before the first day of school,” said Arbatel de la Cuesta, a lawyer who co-authored the VAPAC charter, and assists Joanna de la Cuesta (his mother), who is coordinator/principal/ superintendent of VAPAC.

However, most of the space that VAPAC leased had not been built with service as a school site in mind. “We needed to build some classroom walls over the weekend. Another Depot Park tenant, Northern California Construction and Training, Inc. (an AFL-CIO affiliate) came in and framed the walls for us.” VAPAC’s administrators, teachers and parents helped finish the job.

As VAPAC moved in, the school found itself in one of those “good news/bad news” situations.

The good news: “We have endless amounts of space,” as Arbatel put it. Most schools suffer from overcrowding, but not VAPAC. “We are making our classrooms larger rather than small, and we’re able to do that because we have all this space. And if we need more space, we can expand into it. There’s no pressure to confine ourselves.”

The bad news: much of VAPAC’s former equipment remained at Sacramento High. And a good portion of the desks and other office furniture that VAPAC did receive from the school district amounted to well- worn castoffs. “We continue to welcome donations of equipment in many different categories,” Arbatel said.

Now that it’s settled into its new home, VAPAC is looking to raise its profile in the community. And this presents some challenges. You have to enter Depot Park from a gate on Fruitridge Ave., get a parking ID from the attendant, turn left, then turn right, and drive past several dozen old Army-era buildings to find the campus. It’s not a highly visible location.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“We are trying to reconnect with our alumni, hoping that the word will get out in terms of where we are,” Arbatel said. “We want them to feel connected to VAPAC’s tradition. The program has been going for 20 years, but we don’t want people to feel that simply by moving, we’ve lost that tradition. We want to create a place for the alumni to come home, where we can have reunions. VAPAC is still here for those alums.”

And those alums include people like Ben Johns, who graduated from VAPAC in the late ‘90s, went on to earn three bachelor’s degrees at UC Irvine (in vocal performance, dance, and chemistry!), and then promptly auditioned into Chanticleer (the elite, world-touring 12-voice male vocal ensemble, based in San Francisco).

Even though the school’s location has changed, many things remain the same. Students – there are currently about 275 of them — take classes in core subjects like English, math, foreign language (French and Spanish), science, physical education, and the social sciences (like history and government).

And then there are the arts classes – orchestra, band, choral music, computer animation, radio broadcast, video production, theater, dance, and more.

Taiko drumming, for instance. “We got several wine barrels donated, and we stripped them and converted them,” Arbatel said. “There’s no way we could possibly have bought finished drums like that. Our instructor, Kuniko Takeuchi, is part of Sacramento Taiko Dan, and she has a Ph.D.”

VAPAC’s theater department got established at the new campus with a January production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Students built a spacious, temporary platform-style stage and set panels in a former military building under the direction of stagecraft teacher Larry Fox, who said that “It’s important that they learn how to do it. This school is a breeding ground for future artists.

Fox described the improvised theater in these terms: “It’s not as big as Memorial Auditorium” — (the historic brick-lined downtown venue, which seats 3,000) – “but not as small as the Geery Theatre” — (a radical chic midtown performance space in the basement of an old Victorian, seating around 60). VAPAC intends to eventually carve a 600-seat permanent theater out of the same warehouse.

Another thing that’s the same at VAPAC, students stick around for rehearsals until sundown, even though the official school day ends around 3 p.m.Ben Johns’ mother Carol recalled that when her son attended VAPAC in the ‘90s, “he would go to school at 7:30 a.m. and not come home until 5 or 6 p.m. After school, he went to rehearsals for plays or dance or singing, or radio class. He was thrilled.”

And today’s VAPAC students feel much the same way. “Basically, I live here,” said Gaw Vang, a 12th grader who’s been at VAPAC for four years, and currently serves as student body president.

“I’m often here after 3 p.m. and I’ve been here until 6 p.m.,” added Kathy Milano, an 11th grader. “I like building things for plays. I like the ‘behind the scenes’ part of theater. It’s so much fun.”

Alex Powell, a 10th grader, is focusing on acting, and said he like’s VAPAC’s approach. “They don’t tell you ‘Be a tree.’ They teach you stuff you can use in real acting, stuff you can grab onto.”

Emily Vernon, also a 10th grader, said she “came to this school for theater – it’s what I needed.” Vernon likes the idea that “what we’re doing this year has the potential to become a tradition at this campus.” She added that her drama classes have helped her overcome chronic stage fright.

Robert Haney is an 8th grader — when VAPAC became a charter school, the organization’s mission was expanded to serve grades 7-12. “I came because of the band and the drama department. I’ve been playing alto, tenor and baritone sax. But I also play the viola – I just started in September. It was hard making that transition, just trying to get all the half steps and whole steps, and read a new clef. I also take the bassoon, just for the fun (of playing the instrument).”

Desiree Stone, an 11th grader, said she’s been involved in “Jazz and Pizzazz, Marching Band, and Winter Color Guard. After school, I have practice on Mondays and Wednesdays.” Stone described VAPAC as “totally awesome, but it really depends on you, (and whether) you’re committed enough to do anything. All the teachers will definitely help you, but you’ve got to commit and work at it.”

Nicole Altamirano, a 12th grader, is into singing, including “jazz choir and chamber choir, and Starmakers” – the latter being a group that performed at the Jammies last year. “My favorite was singing at the state capitol, inside the rotunda.” Altamirano said that VAPAC has ignited an interest that she hadn’t previously possessed – “I never liked school until now.”

Jennie Wheeler, another 12th grader, has studied singing and dance, “but vocal ensemble is my favorite. I’ve sung songs from Mexico, Italy, Germany and France, because ever since I was little, I wanted to sing. Singing’s calming. It’s a way for me to relieve everything. When I focus on my music, it’s really easy.”

Drama instructor Patrick Stratton said – with enthusiasm – that teaching at VAPAC is “what makes me get up in the morning. I just adore working with the kids.” I live for those ‘teachable moments’ when you see the light go on over their heads, and they ‘get it.’ And you get those moments over and over.”