ST. BERNARD, Ohio -- Some schools across the country are cutting back on their fine arts programs, but Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard is investing in theirs.
The Catholic high school raised almost $2 million through alumni to renovate the school’s original gymnasium in the center of the building, which was built in 1928, into a modern theater. Under construction since June 2015, the newly opened Carol Dauwe Fine Arts Center has permanent seating for 317 people and space for an additional 200 floor seats surrounding a thrust stage. The facility also features new lighting, sound and video systems.
Senior Sam Devlin, of Greenhills, said he is excited about how the enlarged stage space will transform theater performances. Devlin has a role in the school’s upcoming performance of “The Wiz” on April 21, the first theatrical performance in the new facility.
“With the stage before we were limited in what we can do. Now the possibilities are endless,” Devlin said.
Previous performances took place on the existing raised stage, but a new thrust stage on the floor below the main stage extends performance space into the audience and greatly increases the area for sets and performers.
“It is going to be a new perspective for them when they put on a performance on a real stage, with real lights and the audience in real theater seats,” said Joe Montgomery, fine arts department chair.
In addition to creating the new fine arts center, the school is also growing the fine arts program with the addition of staff and courses.
The school added a second visual arts instructor this year and will add a full-time drama teacher next year, said Principal Steve Schad.
“It’s nice in these educational times, to not only have school support of the arts program, but that they are putting money into it,” Montgomery said.
The space had been used as a practice gym since the Fogarty Center gym was built on the campus in 1985. Teams now practice at the neighboring Friars Club athletic facility, which opened in 2014. Both the school and the Friars Club are supported by the Franciscan Friars of the Province of St. John the Baptist.
In 2014, Roger Bacon also opened a new fitness facility next to the Friars Club for athletes, students, faculty and staff to use.
The new practice and training facilities made the old gymnasium space ripe for a new life. Working with SFA Architects and Turner Construction, the “old gym” as it was known, was transformed into a modern theater space that will be used for classes, assemblies and events, in addition to musical and theatrical performances. The space is even booked for an upcoming wedding reception, Schad said.
Although carpet covers the old gymnasium floor, there is an opening to showcase the school insignia located at what was center court. Other historical aspects also represent the 88-year-old school’s past, including an Our Lady of Angels School emblem that once hung at the all-girls school before it was closed in 1984 and merged with Roger Bacon, which had previously been an all-boys high school.
Skylights — closed since 1993 — were reopened in the ceiling and the light now filters through stained glass. A San Damiano cross from the Basilica of St. Francis brought back from Assisi, Italy, hangs on one wall and connects the school with its Franciscan roots.
A 400-image mural graces the hallway leading into the fine arts center. The images showcase students past and present.
“It tells the history of the school in the faces you see there,” Schad said. “It’s a wonderful representation of who we are.”
Although enrollment has grown significantly in the last four years, just five years ago, Roger Bacon’s enrollment was declining and hit a low of 376 students. A decade earlier, enrollment was twice that number, Schad said.
Five years ago — Schad’s first as principal — administrators set out to redefine the school’s identity as a mid-size, academically-rigorous, diverse, co-educational school, instead of trying to return to the large enrollment numbers of the past. They standardized the admission process to ensure they accepted only students who would have academic success at the school, Schad said.
Previously, students who enrolled weren’t necessarily staying until graduation. Now, the school retains 94 percent of its students all four years.
The school is socioeconomically diverse. Twenty percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and 35 percent are minorities. Students come to Roger Bacon from 53 elementary schools, mostly along the Interstate 75 and 74 corridors.
This year, enrollment has grown to 470 students, which Schad said is the stopping point. There’s a waiting list, but he said they are debt-free and “small by design.”