Every year at South High School, hundreds of students who are interested in the arts are turned away.
The overcrowded school, with nearly 3,000 students, does not have room to enroll everyone. Acting classes are kicked out of their classroom – the school gymnasium – around 70 days a year. Film lessons were held in a closet in the hallway.
Lack of space has been a topic of discussion among Omaha public school staff for several years, but a solution that is being worked on is finally coming to fruition: a $28 million that could be completed by fall 2024.
Becky Noble, a former curriculum specialist for South High’s visual and performing arts who retired in June, said PAHO staff had been considering ways to address space shortages since 2015. Conversations turned into a fundraising campaign organization called Art in the Heart of South Omaha in 2019.
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The campaign is now in the fundraising stage for the project, which would include 70% renovation of the existing school and 30% new additions to create a center that can be used by both the OPS and the audience.
“It came from a real need. We said, ‘We can’t do any more, we’re stuck,’ Noble said. “We have all these kids who want to be part of (the arts), but we need a state-of-the-art space for them to really hone their craft.”
Noble said South High rejects more than 400 students each year who want to take pottery, guitar, piano, art or dance lessons.
The school reinstated dance in 2006 with 12 students and expanded to offer 14 dance sections in the same small studio, according to Art in the Heart. There is only one pottery studio, and like the cinema, the piano lab is in a closet-like space.
Other academic areas have also suffered from overcrowding. Students are turned away from advanced placement classes due to lack of space, and upper class students are encouraged to leave early or start late due to capacity issues.
“We have more students than any other school not only in OPS, but also in our state and region,” said Jodi Pesek, principal of South High. “A lot of our college classes just don’t have seats.”
Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture of Omaha has already designed the center. Because South High has little open land around it, most of the project involves renovating interior rooms to maximize space.
Eric Westman, a partner at Alley Poyner Macchietto, said the design is a mix of old and new. Part of the center is attached to a 1990s addition. It has a central entrance for students and the community, with high ceilings and a mosaic mural. Terraces and large gathering spaces will line the exterior of the building. The center will have expansive block windows that will allow people to see who is performing or training inside.
“We bring people from across the community to this center and give people the opportunity to participate in the education process,” Westman said. “They interact with him through performances or their own students. It’s as public as it gets – a window into education.
The multi-level center will provide classrooms for orchestra, choir, drama, piano, pottery, studio art and more. It will include a recital hall, a black box theater and an art gallery. The renovation will also create 21,000 square feet of space for social studies and language classes.
OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said OPS officials and Art in the Heart members have traveled to various performing and visual arts high schools across the United States to find ideas for the center of South High. One of the district’s goals for the center is to make it an attraction for students, performers, and other artists across the United States.
“I speak on behalf of our school board — we’re thrilled. And we’re going to keep going even though there are hills,” Logan said.
The most pressing hurdle is securing funding by next spring.
The district’s contribution, which was approved by the board in April, will be 25% of the total project cost, or no more than $7 million.
Thompson Rogers, co-chair of Art in the Heart, said the organization would seek the remaining funding from the state, as well as public and private donors.
If funding is secured, the construction process would take around 18 months and the goal is to open the center by the end of 2024.
Rogers said the center will be a beacon in the South Omaha community.
“People will come to this facility for performances, and other arts organizations we’ve spoken with intend to use this facility,” Rogers said. “So it’s more important than just renovating South High. It is a community center.
The school has partnerships with Omaha Performing Arts, Omaha Community Playhouse, and Opera Omaha to use the space. Rogers said Canopy South, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing south Omaha, also plans to be heavily involved with the new center when it opens.
With the programs already in place, Logan said, South High just needs space to let them flourish.
“A lot of big cities have one or two,” Logan said. “That’s what we seek to do at South High School – to make it the mecca of the arts. It doesn’t matter where you go to school, if you want to perform at a professional level, (it’s) where you should go to school.
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