The perfect site for FWISD’s new arts academy


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For decades, several people campaigned for the Fort Worth school district to create a performing arts high school, and they knew exactly where it ought to be.

In the 1980s the idea got nowhere because school administrators were not very interested in the concept of an “arts magnet” or a special performing academy for the district.

Many of those who pushed for it, including me, are graduates of I.M. Terrell High, the city’s historic black school that grew out of Fort Worth’s first public education institution for African-Americans established in 1882.

For decades, it was the only high school for blacks, not only for Fort Worth but also for at least 17 other area cities. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the district added three more black high schools.

Ironically, as integration came in the late 1960s and early ’70s, 3 of the 4 black high schools — including Terrell, which was about the most centrally located high school in the city — would be shut down.

Terrell alumni, recognizing the school’s historic significance and its proximity to downtown just east of Interstate 35W, thought it was the perfect location for a performing arts academy.

It could model Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which has a history similar to Terrell’s and was also on the edge of downtown. In fact, Booker T., as it was most commonly known, was the beginning of what is known the Dallas Arts District and is one of the most acclaimed arts schools in the nation.

Terrell’s building, originally an elementary school for whites, had been enlarged at least three times over the years. It was structurally sound, architecturally significant and majestically inviting, sitting on a hilltop in the shadow of downtown.

By the mid-1990s, the superintendent and school board president were interested in an international multicultural arts and education center, but the majority of trustees were not in favor.

Then Superintendent Thomas Tocco saw to it that $6 million was spent on renovating the building, its restoration receiving high praise from a grateful community.

Since 1998 the building has housed an elementary school, still named for education pioneer Isaiah Milligan Terrell, and the district’s computer operations center.

Former Superintendent Walter Dansby, who spearheaded passage of a $490 million bond issue last year, was keen on the idea of a Visual and Performing Arts Academy.

Dansby, often citing the number of nationally known artists and performers produced by the Fort Worth district, included in that proposal a new arts school that he envisioned to be in the Cultural District.

Of course, many of the artistic legends of the Fort Worth school district — like acclaimed musicians Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Dewey Redman, Cornell Dupree, Charles Moffett and Ray Sharpe — are Terrell alumni.

Since Dansby’s retirement in June, and with apparent cost overruns on proposed bond projects, board members have been looking at more economical ways of completing projects, including the arts academy.

Among the options are whether to build a new facility and renovate a building, and whether to look at other parts of the city for the location.

Trustee T.A. Sims suggested in a recent meeting that the Terrell location be considered for the site of the new academy.

Obviously, while the idea makes sense to me and others, it must be carefully considered, as any site should.

Among concerns would be relocation of the school and programs already there. It would probably not be appropriate to have elementary-age children on the same campus with high school students.

But for a district that has figured out much more complicated things over the years, including passing more than $1 billion in bonds in six years, it shouldn’t be to hard to figure a way to make this happen.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders