White Paper ­ Weston Middle School Auditorium

The Weston Board of Education has eliminated the proposal to add an auditorium to the Middle School from its educational specifications, which serve as its recommendations for building and renovation projects for the Weston Schools. This is one of the reductions in the scope of the building/renovation project that has been made to allow the Board of Education to come as close as possible to the target cost proposed by the Select Team. The Board of Education, however, feels that this decision will have a serious negative impact on the performing arts program as it exists today in the Weston schools. Given the age and condition of the only performing arts and public meeting area that we have, the Weston High School Auditorium, this decision is a lose-lose situation; no increase in facilities and no modernization.

The Fine Arts Program has always been an important element of the Weston Middle School curriculum, and the need for an auditorium is both program driven and enrollment driven. The Middle School has been “making do” with a not-so-great situation for many years, and this has become aggravated by the increased size each grade level. The Middle School auditorium is an important element of the plan to upgrade the Weston Schools, and the Board of Education would like the people of the Town of Weston to have an opportunity to vote on this issue.

In this document, we will present

* Short description of the Performing Arts Program in Weston Schools
* Need for an auditorium at the Middle School
* Impracticality of continuing to overuse the High School Auditorium
* Impact on the Middle School and the High School programs if a WMS auditorium is not built
* Why a “cafetorium’ does not meet the needs of the Middle School
* Information that explains why a “smaller” auditorium is not a solution
* Impact on current program if we do not build a Middle School auditorium
* History of previous reductions taken to Performing Arts spaces in various rounds of educational specifications
* Results of an informal survey of similar and surrounding towns

The Importance of the Performing Arts Experience

The music/performing arts programs in the Weston Schools have always been a special pride of the district. Most people are aware of the recent research confirming that music and art prepare the brain for many other intellectual endeavors, and these disciplines work to integrate and stimulate specific brain activity. In fact, high SAT scores have been correlated with participation in the arts (Princeton study). Additionally, the technical aspects of theater and performing arts offer students the opportunity to prepare for contemporary university major and career opportunities, and many of our students have gone on to pursue careers in music and theater.

The performing arts are important to all students, including those who do not actively participate in the fine arts programs. Learning to be a good audience is an important aspect of every child’s education, beginning with the youngest student. To learn this important social and cultural skill requires that the children to have many experiences in an appropriate setting. As part of Weston’s fine arts philosophy, the performers themselves, as part of their own experience, also have the opportunity to sit in the auditorium to watch their peers perform. All of these activities require a large and an appropriate space, an auditorium.

Weston’s Performing Arts Program

In Weston, children begin their music education when they enter kindergarten. In the elementary school, in addition to the regularly scheduled music classes, the older children can chose to take part in other music-related programs, such as the Chorus that meets before school.

With their move to the Middle School, the children in fifth grade have several performing arts options; they can begin studying a musical instrument (either band or string) and they can join the chorus. Fifth and sixth grade chorus, band, and orchestra all meet before school, at 7 A.M. and instruction in the various instruments is held during the school day. In seventh grade these young musicians may select to take one or more music classees as “electives” (known as PFAs or practical and fine arts classes). Seventh and eighth grade students can chose Chorus, Band, Orchestra, or a combination, all of which meet during the school day. Seventh graders not in Chorus/Band/Orchestra continue with a general music class. In eight grade, almost all students, including those who take Band/Chorus/Orchestra, take a music theater class. In addition to these opportunities, the Middle School has two Jazz Bands, which practice after school; a Chamber Orchestra, which practices before school; and a Show Choir, which practices after school. The students audition for these special performing groups, and both the Jazz Band and the Show Choir have won awards at adjudicated competitions.

Currently, the Middle School (Grades 5-8) has 14 performing groups: Grade 5 Band, Grade 6 Band, Grade 7 Band, Grade 8 Band, Thursday Jazz Ensemble, Tuesday Jazz Ensemble, Grade 5 Orchestra, Grade 6 Orchestra, Grades 7 and 8 Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, Grades 5 and 6 Chorus, Grade 7 Chorus, Grade 8 Chorus, and Show Choir.

On the theater side, beginning in 6thgrade, children interested in theater (performing or behind-the-scenes) can join Short Wharf, the Weston Middle School’s theater company, which presents one musical production each year.

Once these young musicians/singers/thespians/theater technicians reach Weston High School, their options increase even further. In the area of music, there are several jazz ensembles, a freshman band, a varsity band, a concert band, as well as the high school string orchestra and smaller performing groups, including a wind ensemble. Vocalists can choose from two levels of Choir, Women’s Choir, and Madrigal Choir (a select group that has represented Weston High School on performing tours in both the United States and Europe).

Theater-oriented high school students can join Company and take part in two or more staged productions each year-one dramatic, one musical, and Dialogues (a student-run production of original student plays, scenes, poetry, monologues, and music). Again, students in Company develop many talents; they may build sets, manage the sound or the lighting system, assist with the choreography, work on costumes, or manage the stage activity. High school students can select from a variety of elective courses that utilize the High School auditorium as a teaching space/resource. The course selection includes Drama, Drama Practicum, Videography (two levels), Technical Theater Design and Production, and Public Presentation and Debate.

Why Is a Middle School Auditorium Needed?

Building the auditorium at the Middle Schools meets needs not only at the Middle School but helps satisfy the districtwide need for additional performing arts spaces. This need can be fully justified by the district-wide enrollment increase alone. With the current enrollments at all three schools, we are fully utilizing the only performing/large public meeting space we have in Weston, the High School Auditorium.

Safety becomes an issue when large groups of children have to move from school to school. Currently, the Middle School children walk to the High School for concert rehearsals, play practices, and concerts/performances. Many times this is in inclement weather, and frequently, because of lack of a sidewalk and because of snow and mud on the ground, the children are forced to walk out on school road, often carrying instruments. This is certainly a safety issue. Children who come up from Hurlbutt have to be bussed to the high school. This is a very expensive proposition and one that adds to the operational costs and results in a loss of academic time.

Why Not Continue to Use the High School Auditorium?

The High School auditorium is the only performance facility and large gathering place in the town of Weston. Increased population in both the town and the schools has greatly increased it use. As a result of this heavy use over the years, the High School auditorium needs refurbishing and modernization, but this is not in the current plans. As of this writing, it is presently booked for literally every evening for the 2001-2 school year. The auditorium is used for meetings and assemblies during the day, and in the fall, four classes will meet in this space. Every day the High School auditorium is booked for at least one activity and sometime more. The WHS auditorium is also in substantial demand from school and community groups for a variety of purposes. Scheduling conflicts frequently occur and greatly inconvenience both school and community. The demand for use of the High School auditorium far exceeds the facility’s capacity. A sample of its current utilization includes:

Three or more fully staged theatrical productions a year, each requiring two to three months of rehearsal time, as well as time for auditions, set construction, decorating, designing and hanging sound and lighting. (For 2001-2002 Company, Weston High School’s theater group, has three offerings, and in addition, the WHS auditorium is the venue for the annual Middle School Short Wharf production.)

24 performing groups (grades 3-12), ranging from 25 to 95 students each. These include at the High School, the New Vintage Jazz Band, the Symphonic Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, the Madrigals, The Women’s Choir, Company, Dialog, Drama and Videography demonstrations and presentations. (Those at the Middle School have been enumerated previously). No more than 4 to 5 groups can perform at one time because of limited backstage space and time. Each group performed at least three times per year; each performance requires rehearsal and set-up time in the auditorium. Between 200 and 400 students are involved in each program, which attracts a minimum audience of 400.

Town meetings, sports nights, school district convocations, fund-raising activities for community organizations, lectures/presentations by guest speakers, many brought in by school, town, and civic organizations.

Why Not Build a Cafetorium?

Currently, the Middle School music program does not have adequate space for rehearsals. (The Middle School band program alone has 280 students.) Having the auditorium would help alleviate this crunch, but having a “cafetorium” (a cafeteria with a raised platform and small backstage area) would not.

Because of the heavy use of the cafeteria for lunch shifts, the space identified as a “cafetorium” would be available for non-lunch related activities from 8:15 to 10:00 in the morning and then again from 2 to 2:30 in the afternoon. (Currently, the Middle School has four lunch shifts with “lunch time” running from 10:37 to 1:30. When the Middle School becomes a 6-8 school, three lunch shifts will be needed, allowing lunch to start a bit later than 10:37 A.M.) So, for most purposes this space would be available only a short time during the school day.

The continual shifting from one use to the other and then back again, will place additional pressures on the operating costs of the Middle School because additional custodial time will be required for set up and clean up before and after the lunch shifts. Other increases in operating costs may be incurred due to the wear and tear of continual set up/take down, etc.

The performing arts deserve a proper venue as do the sports events. Theatrical events require the specialized facilities available only in an auditorium. Given the large number of musical events presented throughout the year by groups from all our schools, any new performance space within the school district must have good acoustics. An auditorium provides theatrical lighting and high-quality sound system, essentials for any musical presentation. Musical theatrical presentations require an orchestra pit. Both musical and dramatic presentations require adequate wing space and stage depth, as well as space to carry out scene changes and the use of scrims. Tiered seating is necessary for the audience to have adequate sight lines of the stage, and proper seating is conducive to cultivating good audience attitude among the students. For all of these reasons, the Middle School’s Short Wharf productions could never use the “cafetorium.”

Why Not Build a Smaller Auditorium?

The concept of building an auditorium of 300 or 375 seats has been mentioned. This alternative addresses the needs of neither the students nor those who wish to contain the cost of the building project. Building a smaller auditorium would be misguided because it would not provide an acceptable cost to benefit ratio. At this point, we believe the cost savings over building the adequate 450-seat auditorium would not be substantial, and this is currently being researched. A small space of this size would provide space to assemble one grade at the Middle School level, but not even two grades could be accommodated at one time. It would be too small to accommodate the Short Wharf production, and thus would not relieve the crunch at the High School. It would, however, have better lighting and sight lines and would be acoustically superior to a “cafetorium,” but would this be worth the cost?

What If We Don’t Build the Middle School Auditorium?

Unless additional space is provided within the school district, music and theater programs will have to be cut back. In the past we have received high praise, both from members of the community, guests from all around the world and professionals who have attended our performances. Many of our students have gone on to pursue careers in music and theater. The theater groups in the schools have been self-supporting. For example, revenues received from performances are poured back into supplies, sets, costumes, royalties, and the antiquates sound and lighting systems.

If no Middle School auditorium is built, the High School auditorium will suffer extreme wear and tear. It will require significant operating budget expenditures for repairs and maintenance if this already overused facility has to continue to support the performing needs of the entire school system. Although a generous donor has recently contributed a new sound system for the High School auditorium, the lighting system and stage hangings are in poor condition (the motorized screen is no longer motorized, and it is in tatters; the stage floor is starting to wear thin).

Currently, any and all children are able to participate in the performing arts program. In the future, it is very likely that some children will be denied the opportunity to take part in certain very popular performing arts programs. There will simply not be enough space. The very tired High School Auditorium will not be able to provide the space needed for these groups of children to learn, prepare, rehearse, and perform. Weston has always prided itself on its “no-cut” policy for its programs.

We are no longer competitive with our sister towns, many of whom have just completed or are in the process of completing facilities that address the performing arts needs of their children. (See attached informal survey conducted by Mrs. Amy Sanborn.)

Performing Arts Spaces: Their History in the Ed Specs

The need for additional performance spaces to meet curriculum needs in the Weston schools was originally documented in 1999. With the enrollment increases of the past few years, more students than ever are participating in our already over-burdened performing arts programs. The early educational specifications called for a small auditorium (375 seats) in the 3-5 school, a 400-seat auditorium at the middle school, a major expansion and complete renovation of the high school auditorium and its components-all of which addressed the increased demand. However, due to pressure from various groups to contain costs and in an effort to comply with the $60 million target put forward by the Select Team, the Board of Education has been forced to make some very hard choices, one of which was to eliminate all of these educationally appropriate solutions.

The building project, as most currently defined [August 1, 2001] will provide the Weston Schools with the following performing arts spaces: a stage in the cafeteria of the new 3-5 school; a renovation to the Middle School cafeteria to provide a stage area that would allow for large assembly space; and the auditorium at the high school, which will receive minimal improvements to some storage areas.

1999 Facilities Planning

The need for additional performance space in the Weston Schools was identified early in the process of planning to meet the needs of our growing enrollment. In the 1999 facilities planning process, the lack of an auditorium at the Middle School was identified as one of several key core-area deficiencies. The 1999 vision called for a 400 seat Middle School auditorium (12,000 sq ft at $200/sq ft, to cost $2.4 million).

June 2000

The educational specs of June 13, 2000 continued to support the need for performing arts space in Weston schools. The architect’s proposal in June 2000 included two new auditoriums and major renovations to the existing performing arts spaces in the Weston Schools. Proposed were a small (375 seat) auditorium for the 3-5 upper elementary school; a 400 seat auditorium (allowing for 150 performers) for the Middle School; and major expansion and complete renovation of the high school auditorium and related spaces.

February 2001

The first performing arts space to be eliminated was the auditorium at the new 3-5 school. The February 23, 2001 educational specifications for the new 3-5 school show no auditorium but a stage had been added to the cafeteria, thus creating a part-time auditorium with folding-chair seating for 400 persons. (“Cafetorium” is the misnomer sometimes given to areas that attempt to provide both a cafeteria and an auditorium-like area that can be used for large assemblies).

The Middle School educational specifications continued to show an auditorium (a 10,800 sq ft area with tiered seating for 450 and a stage able to accommodate up to 150 performers).

March 2001

In the educational specifications revised March 23,2001, the size of the Middle School auditorium/stage was reduced to 4,950 sq ft.

At the High School, the performing arts spaces, which previously had included an enlargement of the auditorium from 580 to 625 seats along with upgrading of the stage, a set construction area, a costume shop/storage area, dressing rooms, and green room, were reduced from 22,598 to 13,880 sq ft. At this point the High School Principal, Mrs. Kolek, pleaded that if her performing arts space had to be cut, at least we would need to retain the auditorium at the Middle School.

May 2001

In the May 7, 2001 revision of the educational specifications, further reductions were made in the Weston High School’s proposed performing arts spaces. Although no further reductions were made to the auditorium itself (the existing auditorium seats 580 in tiered seating), space reductions were made in the support areas (storage, dressing rooms, green room). The financial pressures were mounting to eliminate the proposed Middle School auditorium. The Middle School specifications speak of adding a stage area of 950 sq ft to the cafeteria. This space (“cafetorium”) would accommodate up to 100 performers, and an additional 350 sq ft area for storage of 400 stacking chairs for the audience and the 22 cafeteria tables.

July 2001

The Board of Education Facilities Subcommittee proposed further reductions to the performing arts spaces in the Weston Schools. These reductions left Weston High School with only one ensemble area where the full High School Band could practice-the High School auditorium-and a tech room, located behind the stage that will now be used as the scene shop.

At that time the cost for the Middle School auditorium was placed at $2,158,000. This cost would be off set by the State reimbursement of $462,631 and the cost for converting the cafeteria to a “cafetorium” would be around $400,000, possibly leaving the net cost of the auditorium at approximately $1.3 million (as of this writing these figures are unconfirmed). At that time the Construction Manager was asked to determine the cost of a smaller (300 or 375 seat) auditorium, a size that would receive the maximum State reimbursement for a school the size of the newly renovated Middle School.

August 2001

The current educational specifications, approved August 1, 2001, do not include an auditorium for the Middle School and additionally there will be no significant renovations made to the aging High School auditorium and other performing arts spaces at that school.

Over the past 30 months, the need for adequate performing arts space in the Weston Schools has not evaporated, although it would appear that this was the case when one reads the current educational specifications.

Conclusion

The community will need to indicate, through the referendum process, whether or not they value the fine arts to the extent that this facility could be added to the town assets as a resource for both school and community use.
Given the process of scaling back the construction projects to meet fiscal goals, many(some?) of the educational goals that were identified at the onset of the facilities improvement process are now eliminated or compromised. It is the intent of this paper to bring substance to the debate about whether or not this facility warrants a place on the ballot for voters to decide its fate.

Appendix 1

(Data obtained from Amy Sanborn, based on results of her informal survey done Spring 2001.)

Westport: North Avenue Middle School and Coleytown Middle School each have an auditorium. Before the conversion of Bedford MS to an elementary school, it had a 635 seat auditorium (this is being maintained in the conversion to an elementary school).

Ridgefield: The East Ridge Middle School has an auditorium, and the new 6-8 middle school in Ridgefield will have an auditorium.

Redding: The John Read Middle School does not have an auditorium, but it does have a community room (150 seats) that can accommodate a full grade at one time. They put on plays in the gymnasium and for concerts they travel to the regional high school, Joel Barlow.

New Canaan: Saxe Middle School (grades 5-8) has an auditorium that seats approximately 700.

Wilton: Middlebrook School (6-8) has an auditorium.

Darien: Middlesex School (6-8) has an auditorium.

Easton: The middle school has no auditorium, they are building now and will add a cafetorium

Simsbury: The 7-8 school has no auditorium and has no plans for one; they use the West Hartford auditorium when necessary. For back to school nights they use the cafeteria and the gym but space is very tight.

Avon: Their middle school (renovated 9 years ago) has a cafeteria with stage; performance space fits about 100, very tight.