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Art school can stop improvising soon

Sometime this week, the divider will go up between old memories and new dreams.

On one side of the work fence will be the existing Perkins Elementary School, a charming but increasingly unworkable site for one of the most popular magnet programs in the Pinellas School District.

On the other side will be construction of a new campus, six state-of-the-art buildings tailored to the school's mission of combining the best in arts education with a strong foundation in academics.

Completion of the $9.5-million project is a year away, but already parents and teachers are talking about what they eagerly anticipate in the new Perkins, and what they will sorely miss about the old.

"I think it's long overdue, and I'm glad to see it finally happen," said Dudley Clapp, whose fourth-grade daughter, Alana, started in kindergarten at Perkins five years ago, when Perkins was first converted to a magnet school. Even then there was talk of the need for a new campus, says Clapp, who heads the School Advisory Council.

"But one thing I'll probably miss in the current system is the old courtyard. There's this magnificent oak tree there that provides a focal point for the whole school," Clapp said.

The tree will no longer be in the center of campus, but "it won't be touched," promised Pat Archibald, director of the magnet program.

Archibald said she will have a hard time letting go of the old campus. "I actually don't think it's been so inconvenient, because it's a charming school," she said.

But charm has its price, says principal Robert Lister. "Many people don't realize there are behind-the-scenes problems with the air conditioning and plumbing that are endless. You just reach the point of no return on these things."

The original school, built at about the same time Sputnik was launched, was not designed for the special needs of an arts school, Lister says.

For the past five years, the Perkins faculty has been "faking it," he said, "although we faked it pretty well, because we have very creative people around here. The new campus will really maximize what we have to offer here."

That's the way Anita Reece sees it, too. Her daughter Frances, now in third grade at Perkins, will have nearly two years to benefit from the new surroundings. "I believe in change _ in society, anywhere," she said. "Those buildings are getting old."

Teachers agree that the biggest improvement will be the addition of a new, 400-seat performing arts center. Students will no longer have to pack up their things and travel to other school auditoriums for performances. An outdoor amphitheater in the center of the new campus also will showcase student talents.

The district is remodeling what used to be the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, immediately south of the school campus. Workers will install a stage and professional-quality lighting and sound systems. The church's wooden pews will be used for seating. The remodeled building will replace the school's existing theater, a black box converted from a regular classroom.

"It's like having a new home," said Tim Topper, head of the school's theater department.

Even with its outdated facilities, the school has never had problems attracting applicants. There are nine to 10 applications for each of the 70 new student slots each year. Students are selected either by lottery or by their proximity to the school. The school's capacity will remain at 550 students.

A tour of Perkins illustrates the love-hate relationship parents and teachers have with the school's five 40-year-old buildings, where the sound of children in pursuit of their muses often fills the hallways. Only the kindergarten building, built in 1972, will be spared the wrecking ball. It will be remodeled and used for the school's pre-kindergarten program.

On a recent morning, 20 fifth-graders in three tight rows stretched and loosened for rehearsals in the school's makeshift dance studio, their willowy arms and legs nearly touching each other.

"There's no room for us to move side-to-side," said dance instructor Jenna Rice. "It's ridiculous, because most dance steps are side-to-side or diagonal."

On the new campus, Rice and her students will have more than double the floor space, with two walls of mirrors rather than one, and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system that will enhance student performances.

Art instructor Sigrid Lavfald is looking forward to art rooms with storage space for supplies and a shared office with her colleague, Michelle Crosby, who now works at the opposite end of the hallway.

There also will be a display area for student work, which is now scattered throughout the campus. Best of all, Lavfald says, she will be getting new art tables for her youngest pupils, who no longer will have to do their drawing at chin level.

String and band students now practice inside portable classrooms, where instructor Twannette Nash often finds herself stumbling over instruments and backpacks while trying to give students individual attention. Next year, Nash and her students will have larger, sound-proof rooms for honing their skills.

While construction proceeds, the campus will be divided "by a Berlin Wall" running north and south, Lister says. Physical education classes will be moved from the school's open fields into its central courtyard. Buses will be rerouted onto campus through what is now the parking lot for the old Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

The wall won't come down until spring, when the old buildings are demolished and the space is converted to playgrounds.

"We'll just have to make do for a year or so," Lister said. "But it will be worth it. We'll be able to offer our students so many more opportunities. We won't have to fake it anymore."

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