By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
With the start of the 2015 -2016 school year, Oklahoma City’s Harding Fine Arts Academy (HFAA), a public charter high school, is where students returned to find a new dance studio and drama room.
The renovation of an abandoned, unused indoor swimming pool has taken place through funding support provided by the Oklahoma Board of County Commissioners and the Kirkpatrick Family Fund.
“We are honored to partner with Harding Fine Arts Academy and provide the funding support needed to renovate this historic Oklahoma City building, while empowering the academy to enroll more students and reach its fullest potential,” said Elizabeth K. Eickman, Director Kirkpatrick Family Fund.
The school’s charter, sponsored by Oklahoma City Public Schools, allows for a non-selective, tuition-free public high school for grades 9-12.
HFAA and Harding Charter Preparatory High Schools share the building that was once OKC Public Schools’ Harding High School
According to HFAA Principal Barry Schmelzenbach, due to a lack of classroom space the school has not able to serve all the students who had hoped to attend there..
“The fact that we have had to turn away students who truly wanted to attend Harding Fine Arts Academy is very difficult for us,” said Schmelzenbach. “Our school is unique because it is college-preparatory school that focuses on fine arts and arts-integration into our core classes. Creative and talented students from all of the metro area benefit from our unique approach to education,” he said.
HFAA requires that six arts electives be taken by each student over a four year period. However, many classes could not accommodate the demand for them due to space limitations.
As a result, HFAA began planning a three phase renovation strategy in early 2014.
Now completed, Phase One involved the conversion of the existing fourth floor library into three new classrooms.
During Phase Two, the old indoor pool natatorium was renovated to become the new drama room and dance studio.
Most Oklahoma City Public School high schools previously had indoor pools and swimming was a major part of their physical education programs.
“As far as we know, the indoor pool had not been used in years,” said Schmelzenbach. “As much as we hated to cover up something so beloved to many Harding High School alums, this new space is making a world of difference to our students and our fine arts programs,” he said.
Phase Three involves the conversion of the old Harding High School band room into a multi-functional media center equipped with computers for student and parent use, a conference area, and counselors’ offices.
Under Oklahoma State law, charter schools do not receive any money as part of the state funding for facilities maintenance or improvements as do district public schools. Also, charter schools are prohibited from issuing bonds or incurring debt. Thus, highly competitive grants and private donations are the only permissible source for funding.
HFAA received two grants to assist with the school’s renovation and expansion efforts. One grant, for $250,000, is from the Oklahoma Board of County Commissioners, led by District 1 Commissioner, Willa Johnson. Another grant, given by the Kirkpatrick Family Fund, was for $50,000.
“I am pleased to have been able to provide assistance to Harding Fine Arts Academy as it reconfigured space in the Harding School Building allowing for more classroom space and learning opportunities providing their “arts integrated curriculum” to more Oklahoma County students,” said Willa Johnson, District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner.
Because of this support from our community, we have been able to add an additional 40 students to our school,” said Schmelzenbach. “In addition our students feel so proud to have our new, beautiful classroom and media center additions,” he said.
“We are so thankful for both the grant from Oklahoma Board of County Commissioners as well as from the Kirkpatrick Family Fund,” said Sally Bentley, HFAA Board President.
“Our faculty and staff have always made the best of our existing facilities, but our renovation plan will address the need for more classroom space, improve the existing learning environment, and allow for growth over the next several years.”
Additional funds for this project were also raised through Harding’s Annual Fundraising Campaign and Leadership in Arts & Education Awards dinner, which honored Sonic’s Cliff and Leslie Hudson.
Harding Fine Arts Academy was recently named as one of the nation’s top 500 schools by Newsweek magazine for their work with low-income students.
For more information, visit hardingfinearts.org.