Last month, the Boston Arts Academy broke ground on their new campus in the Fenway. Construction on the state-of-the-art facilities are expected to be finished by 2021; until then, BAA students will be learning in their new home on Charles Street in Fields Corner.
Since relocating in September, the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts has occupied the space that until last year housed Dorchester Academy. The building at 11 Charles St. also remains home to the Community Academy for Arts and Sciences (CASH), whose students now co-inhabit the facilities with BAA students.
Now, four months into the transitional period, headmaster Anne Clark says the students and staff are still settling in, but that the welcome the school has received from its new Fields Corner neighbors is easing that process.
“Moving is always a challenge,” she said, “but our neighbors have made it better.”
Clark and BAA staff invited a small contingent of Fields Corner community leaders, business owners, and neighbors to a tour of the new facilities last month as a gesture of goodwill and gratitude to the community they say has been largely welcoming since their arrival to Dorchester.
“We’re here for the next three years. We want to be a part of the community while we’re here,” Clark explained to the group. “We want to be contributing, we want to be positive, we want to be neighbors to you and learn from you about how we can best support you and be part of the neighborhood.”
Among the tour members was co-owner of Home.stead Cafe Vivian Girard, who Clark said was among the first to extend a hand of greeting to the school. The cafe, located just steps from the school, has already hosted a handful of students for its monthly open mic performances.
Blocks away, the Dorchester Art Project has also begun collaborating with the arts school, hosting a senior visual arts show in their gallery last month. And on January 25 and 26, BAA will present “Memphis, the Musical” at the Strand Theatre, the Uphams Corner venue that has been the academy’s chosen stage for its big annual show for several years.
Clark expects those community partnerships to continue to develop in the coming months.
“It’s still early, but we’re looking forward to building these meaningful connections with people just around the corner or down the street,” she said.
Meanwhile, academy students are continuing to adjust to life on a new campus. At BAA, high schoolers study typical subjects like science, math, English, history, and world languages, while at the same time concentrating on one of five arts majors: Theatre, Dance, Music, Design and Visual Communications (Visual Arts), and Fashion Technology. For many, the new location in Dorchester presents certain logistical challenges but alleviates others.
“We have students from every neighborhood in the city of Boston, but the vast majority live in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, so for them, this was a much easier commute,” said Clark.
Two seniors at the BAA, 18-year-old Djemani Moore of Ashmont and 18-year-old Jaquana Daise of Four Corners, talked the Reporter about life in their new digs. For Moore, being closer to home has its perks.
“I get an extra 45 minutes of sleep,” he said.
On the other hand, commuting to the BAA’s partner facilities in the Fenway, where students take part in daily co-op programs with the Berklee School of Music and Boston Conservatory, is a bit more of a hassle.
“But in terms of the programs, nothing has really changed,” he noted.
Moore, a tenor saxophone player, spent his first three years enrolled at the Fenway campus, along with Daise, a dancer. Over the years, they’ve benefited from the hands-on approach taken by BAA; the school regularly hooks Moore up with gigs in town, and offers Daise a chance to dance at private events, such as one hosted recently by the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. While those opportunities remain accessible, both agreed that one challenge presented by the new facilities is limited space.
“In the Fenway, it was bigger and we had more practice rooms,” said Daise. “There, we had four dance studios, but in this space we only have three. They converted one of the gyms here into dance studios...but in the end, the training’s still the same. We made it work.”
The move required students and staff to get a little creative by transforming normal classrooms and recreational spaces into arts facilities: a basement room was soundproofed to become a music production studio, an auditorium was tweaked to serve as a makeshift black box, and a hallway was made into an “open library” to make way for costume design classrooms. But according to Clark, the move in some ways represents an upgrade.
“Our old building was originally a postal warehouse, and it was our temporary place that we were supposed to be in, and we were there “temporarily” for twenty years...so that building had been retrofitted for an arts school, but it left a lot to be desired,” she explained.
The new building under construction in the Fenway, a state-of-the-art $125 million facility funded in part by Walsh administration investments, will include with a 500 seat theater, a 200 seat black box, dance and recording studios, and enhanced rehearsal spaces.
The current space on Charles Street lacks those amenities, but it retains the spirit and the spunk that makes Boston Arts Academy unique, according to Moore and Daise.
“No one here is ever alone,” said Moore. “Everyone here has someone as weird as they are...freedom of expression is really a thing here.”
Moore pointed to the lax dress code as an example of that freedom. Walking the hallways of BAA, you might see students in jeans, baseball caps, and even--on this particular day--a fluffy pink bunny costume. Moore says it’s all about embracing individuality.
“When I look at this school as college prep, it’s more on the social side,” he explained. “Like, you are prepared to be yourself. You have to know yourself and express who you are to other people.”
Daise contrasted her experience at BAA with memories of her charter middle school, where she says students never changed classrooms and a dress code was strictly enforced.
“I feel more free now,” she said.
Both seniors are in the midst of applying to colleges; Moore hopes to continue studying jazz at Berklee or Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, while Daise is considering pursuing veterinary science or biology. Even though dance may not be in her professional future, Daise said she has no regrets about attending BAA.
“I got to be myself, and I got to do something that I love.”