Performing Arts School Seen As 'Nice Addition'

January 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Several local arts leaders say they embrace the idea of a performing arts school as part of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

The Rev. Marvin Sapp, a local pastor and six-time Grammy-nominated gospel music star, and his wife, psychologist MaLinda Sapp, last week applied to create the Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology under the new GRPS Centers of Innovation program. Sapp’s ministry, Lighthouse Full Life Center, is buying the nearly 17-acre Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids property at 660 Burton St. SE, and the Ellington Academy would be located there.

“One of the intriguing aspects of this relationship is you have a Grammy-nominated performer attached to the project,” Superintendent Bernard Taylor said. “The type of contacts an individual of that stature has gives us more of an advantage than is typical in these endeavors.

“We have a strong arts community here,” he added. “We want to broaden the level of involvement so we can bring in more people who have contacts and ideas.”

The concept of a school focusing on the arts has been floating around for years, said Julie Powell, fine arts and physical education supervisor for GRPS. But those ideas have succumbed to “red tape” issues such as transportation, location and funding, she said.

“Cultural institutions as a whole have always been at the table when this has come up,” added Powell, who has not been involved in the Ellington Academy application. “I hope it gets off the ground in that respect.”

According to GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt, the school would open in the fall with a total of 120 students in seventh and eighth grades. Sixth and ninth grades would be added in the second year, and then additional grades annually until the school encompasses sixth through 12th grades, he said.

A key component as the district evaluates the application is whether the program can be shown to be sustainable financially. Helmholdt said the plan is to tap into Sapp’s music industry connections to teach the middle and high school curriculum in a performing arts format.

While details of the Ellington Academy are yet to be revealed, the arts community appears poised to embrace it.

Catherine Holbrook, executive director of St. Cecilia Music Center, said she is interested in finding ways that the center’s programs for third- through 12th-graders could mesh with the Ellington Academy.

“It’s just another nice addition to what we can offer the kids,” Holbrook said. “Obviously, we would hope whatever they do, we could roll into what they’re doing and be able to work with them.”

She said she is concerned that fundraising for a St. Cecilia endowment might overlap with donors who could be an important part of sustaining the new school. IRS documents showed that St. Cecilia relies on donations for about one-third of its annual revenue.

“I think it’d be a terrific idea. I’d love to see a performing arts school, and we’d absolutely love to be involved,” said Joe Dulin, managing director at Circle Theatre. The community theater, located on the campus of Aquinas College, gets about 13 percent of its revenues from public donations, according to the latest IRS documents posted.

“I definitely think it’s a good idea,” added Laura Berman, director of the School of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, which offers dance programs at six Grand Rapids schools and through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department with its Steps in a New Direction program. “Having the opportunity to attend a school focused on the arts is great for the city. It adds to the identity of the city to be able to offer that.”

Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids Executive Director Iliana Ordaz-Jeffries declined to comment about the Sapps’ application, saying she is unfamiliar with it. But she noted that some Grand Rapids schools already have strong arts programs. “Knowing the shape that school systems are in financially, does this take energy and funding away from that?” she wondered.

Helmholdt said that in order for the Ellington Academy to open by fall, the Board of Education would need to act before the spring.

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