Revenge of the art school

VAPAC, Sacramento High School’s celebrated arts program, finds a home of its own

Arbatel and Joanna de la Cuesta plan to fill this warehouse space with three dance studios, a large theater and band rooms for the Visual and Performing Arts Centre charter school.

Arbatel and Joanna de la Cuesta plan to fill this warehouse space with three dance studios, a large theater and band rooms for the Visual and Performing Arts Centre charter school.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Joanna de la Cuesta, the coordinator for Sacramento High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Centre (VAPAC), entered the small, dark foyer of a building that once housed a school for adults. On first glance, the building wasn’t much to look at. The floors were bare concrete in some places and dusty hardwood in others. Narrow hallways kept out much of the natural light that filtered into the large, airy rooms. But looking at the appliances in the old cafeteria, and the great open spaces that could be turned into classrooms, offices and libraries, de la Cuesta was thrilled by the place’s potential.

“This wall is going,” she said, flattening her hand resolutely against the yellow cinderblock that cut the foyer in half.

VAPAC was nearing the end of negotiations with the owner of Depot Park, the business park at the site of the old U.S. Army Depot on Fruitridge Road at Florin-Perkins. Though the state Board of Education still had to approve the site, de la Cuesta was counting on owner Richard Fischer to help transform a secured corner of the property into a vibrant fine-arts charter school.

“I told him that because it’s a visual- and performance-arts school, it’s got to have that pizzazz when you walk into it,” said de la Cuesta. “It has to have it,” she insisted.

Considering Fischer’s early renovations in other parts of Depot Park, it appeared likely that the director of the new VAPAC charter school would get her way.

De la Cuesta strode confidently through every room, calling this one a counselor’s office, that one the site of a new handicap-accessible elevator. She was followed by her son Arbatel, who co-authored the charter proposal that fundamentally released VAPAC from Sacramento High School. After a short but explosive battle, the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education voted this winter to close Sacramento High at the end of the year and let the nonprofit St. Hope Corp. transform it into a charter school in September (see “The miseducation of Sac High,” SN&R Cover, February 6). St. Hope envisioned VAPAC as a self-sufficient 500-student academy offering an arts education along with a core curriculum of high-school classes. Under that model, VAPAC would have to cut its extensive list of arts classes nearly in half, said Arbatel. Fearing the loss of staff, diversity and talent, the de la Cuestas quickly did their own charter petition, which the board unanimously approved.

“Radio booth, radio booth, radio booth,” said Joanna, pointing at three small, enclosed offices that were laid out just like the radio studios at Sac High. “It will work out perfectly.”

Like a conjurer, Joanna mentally transformed the space into between 20 and 22 large core classrooms, offices for staff, and facilities enough to support 500 high-school students plus an additional 500 junior-high-school students. With a staff of 40 teachers and a governing board including herself, four elected teachers, the principals from both the junior- and the senior-high schools, two elected parents and two elected students, Joanna looked forward to planning and managing the program’s staff, its curriculum and, most importantly, its budget.

“Right now, at Sacramento High School,” said Arbatel, “everyone’s wondering: Where’s the budget? Where’s all our money?”

But governing the school might prove easy compared with outfitting the campus and attracting 1,000 students to the space by September. Many students, even those devoted to VAPAC, already were feeling pressured to enroll in other schools before all the spots were taken. Some of VAPAC’s teachers were feeling the same pressure. Music teacher William Zinn, one of VAPAC’s most prized instructors, already has accepted a position with another district.

In spite of the challenges, the de la Cuestas maintained their infectious optimism as they dreamed up floor plans for the school’s core building and two others that would complete the campus. A stand-alone annex would accommodate kilns and pottery wheels for the ceramics classes. Behind that, a large warehouse space could accommodate a soundproof band room, a 300-seat theater and three dance studios. There was also room for an art gallery, a set-building workshop, a secure storage room for musical instruments and a practice space for the school’s marching band. If VAPAC could use Depot Park’s swimming pool and baseball diamond, the school even could expand its physical-education courses past dance and martial arts. “Synchronized swimming,” suggested Joanna.

In spite of the obvious work involved in building an arts school in the space of one summer, the de la Cuestas felt they’d already cleared the most serious hurdles. Against all odds, they’d shepherded their charter petition through the approval process and found a space they could afford with all the raw materials they needed. If their luck held, they’d also be able to attract the support of the local arts community, private donors and state grants to outfit it.

“We’re just anxious to start moving forward,” said Arbatel.

Back at Sac High, arts and performing trophies sat in glass cases and crowded together in dozens up on top of filing cabinets. On a recent afternoon, students in snazzy suits and slinky dresses gave their peers a special performance of Guys and Dolls. To the side of the small stage, Zinn led a portion of the orchestra through the play’s musical score. But in Joanna’s office, empty boxes leaned against her filing cabinets, evidence that the department was preparing its last curtain call.

Joanna said she regularly got calls from schools as far away as New Zealand that wanted to model their programs after VAPAC. But in spite of the program’s success, the department had to depend heavily on the donations of booster clubs and on the manual labor of its teaching staff to offer students well-equipped photography studios, dance studios and theaters.

At Sac High, VAPAC only enrolled between 350 and 450 core students but offered arts, drama and music classes to the entire campus, which gave the program enough students to fill specialized and advanced classes. Were the school to serve only 500 students total, like the St. Hope model, Joanna imagined a gutted program that still would have to hire enough staff to teach the core math, science and history classes that students no longer would attend in other departments. A charter school looked like the only viable option, and many instructors were excited by the possibility.

“It’s nice being able to start out fresh,” said Wm. Shane Carpenter, VAPAC’s radio instructor, who’s already planning for new equipment “instead of having to jerry-rig 25 years of this.”

Once the district had approved VAPAC’s charter proposal, Joanna expected Superintendent Jim Sweeney to help the charter find appropriate facilities. Instead, she was told that the district was busy securing space for a half-dozen other charter schools planned for September. Sweeney’s advice was to either accept a scaled-down space for 500 students, said Joanna, or stay under St. Hope at Sacramento High School, at least for the first year.

“We tried to redo our budget on 500,” said Arbatel, “and it cut everything out. We were down to the real basics in terms of what we could offer the students.”

To maintain the 68 art classes VAPAC now offers and a core curriculum staff, the de la Cuestas hit on a student body of 1,000. The idea of a new performing-arts junior-high school was born, and the de la Cuestas went shopping for a site on their own.

“We know the program’s good,” said Joanna. “It’s been around 20 years. Once we have control of our curriculum, you’re going to see an exceptional school here.”

To finance the facilities, Arbatel is planning to request state grants. The de la Cuestas also are depending on a break in rent for the first year; they fear they might not have 1,000 students by September.

“We haven’t even begun promoting it yet,” said Joanna.

Their expectations regarding facilities may have to be scaled back in the first year, also.

“Really, we don’t even need to have a theater in place,” said Arbatel. “We can do productions that are on the floor.”

Though some teachers and technicians have committed to working through the summer to build stages, studios, dressing rooms and costume shops, there’s not much time left in the schedule, and the state Board of Education hasn’t approved the facilities yet. The district board hasn’t seen the site either, but member Manuel Hernandez said that he hoped any school that had been granted a charter could start as soon as its site was determined to be safe.

The de la Cuestas expect VAPAC’s reputation to secure them a lot of good will in the community, and they expect to work with private companies and other arts organizations. They’re even hoping to receive donated computers and tools. To them, this is an opportunity for Sacramento to help build a world-class fine-arts school. And they believe their high-caliber teaching staff and growing core of dedicated students will help them realize its potential.

“That’s why we’re saying this cannot die,” said Joanna. “It cannot die at all.”