The School for Creative and Performing Arts was founded in 1973 as part of the settlement of the Bronson desegregation suit against Cincinnati Public Schools. As the city’s public school system was being overhauled to afford all students an equal, free, appropriate and integrated education, the time was ripe to launch a truly unique school. This unique school would provid not only top notch academic instruction but also pre-professional arts training.
The founding principal was William Dickinson, then a CPS music teacher, strongly supported by CPS Superintendent Donald Waldrop and Cincinnati Boy Choir founder, Bob McSpadden. SCPA moved in with the Mt. Adams Elementary School and welcomed students in grades 4-6, with arts classes in dance, vocal and instrumental music, visual art and drama. SCPA occupied the whole building in 1974 and by 1975, expanded into the adjacent Immaculata Church building to accommodate a sky rocketing enrollment and more dance, band and gym classes. The first big show, later known as the major musical, was Babes in Toyland and was performed at the Education Center, then located on 9th Street.
Further growth in 1976, brought a move to Summit Road in Roselawn where the school’s activities were divided between three building: Chabod House, for classes and office space; the basement of the Lutheran Church, which was the cafeteria; and the Jewish Community Center for gym. There were no lockers so as the students traveled from building to building, rain or shine, they had to carry all their belongings with them. This daily “journey” continues to be commemorated during Class Day as the seniors include a walk outside as part of their final pass as SCPA students.
In 1977 another move was necessary as another grade was added and more room was needed for current operations as well. SCPA moved to 1310 Sycamore and split the old Woodward building with Abigail Cutter Junior High. SCPA used the 3rd and 4th floors while Cutter continued to operate on the 1st and 2nd. The auditorium, cafeteria, gym and play ground were shared by both. The Shop, a fund raising project of The Friends of SCPA, debued at this location, as did the Artistic Director position, inimitably performed by the multi-talented Jack Louiso, who went on to found the Cincinnati Children’s Theatre in the 1990’s.
The Over-the-Rhine location was perfect historically speaking and mission-wise for SCPA. There had been a school on the Sycamore site since 1831 which was the first public school west of the Alleghany Mountains. The great abolitionists Levi and Katherine Coffin also lived on the property, causing there to be remnants of Underground Railroad tunnels underneath the building to this day! SCPA’s mission to educate all talented children in the arts is cut from the same cloth as these past humanitarian endeavors.
In 1978, SCPA finally occupied the entire building and in 1979 graduated its first class of seniors. The Class of ’79 was the first and last class to hold its graduation ceremonies in the school’s auditorium. The Class of ’80 was the only class to graduate in Eden Park at the Pavilion. The Class of ’81 made history as the only class to graduate in the ballroom at Music Hall. The Class of ’82 was the first class to include survivors, those who had been at SCPA since grade 4, and the first of many to have their commencement ceremony in the Music Hall auditorium. Early in the 21st century, SCPA began graduating from the Cintas Center at Xavier University.
During the early years Mr. Dickinson, fondly known as Mr. D., organized a national network of performing arts schools (NETWORK) and became its first president. This coincided with SCPA student Roscoe (Rocky) Carrol winning the National Endowment for the Arts Talent Search in drama and becoming a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. In 1981 the entire cast of The Wiz was invited to perform at The National Theatre in Washington, DC, where there was a yellow brick road created just for the occasion! Performing groups from the school toured Europe on several occasions, and took an original multi-media production, The Book of Five Rings, to Gifu, Japan in 1999.
The school suffered a terrible blow April 18, 1996, when an arsonist’s fire destroyed the theatre and almost burned the whole building down. School closed for a few days but enough repairs were made to finish the year although it was eerie to have the theatre doors locked and the space off limits. The school community rallied under the banner of Fireworks! and presented an outstanding medley of performances at a fundraising gala at the Aronoff Center. Renovations were completed by September, and SCPA, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes, better than ever.
In 2008-09 and 2009–10, the school was featured in the MTV reality series Taking the Stage, filmed at the school and starring SCPA students. In the fall of 2009, 10 SCPA students were invited by the First Lady to perform at the White House. In August of 2010, SCPA combined with the Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment to create the first kindergarten through twelfth grade (about ages five to seventeen) arts school and first private sector/public arts school in the U.S. The new facility in Over-the-Rhine was championed by the late Cincinnati Pops Maestro Erich Kunzel and funded through a unique public-private partnership that raised over $31 million in private contributions to match public funding. The building features specialized facilities for the arts and three separate theaters and is the key to redevelopment plans for the area.
SCPA has produced notable graduates in virtually every artistic field including award-winning actors, directors, singers, dancers, musicians, stage technicians and designers and arts educators. In addition to excelling in arts fields, SCPA graduates have also gone on to prominent positions in law, medical and business professions.
SCPA students and faculty continue to present on great stages around the country, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center; at prestigious adjudications, like the World Piano Competition; and have been invited to appear internationally at such gatherings as the American High School Theatre Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment opened in the fall of 1985 in Corryville at 2821 Vine Street. For the first two years the space was shared with the Academy of World Languages. The PSAE program exposed students, kindergarten thru third grades to the Arts; including art, music, drama, dance, writing and Suzuki strings. Enrollment started just below two hundred pupils and grew to over four hundred students as the program prepared to join The School for The Creative and Performing Arts in 2010.
A public school had been located on the Vine Street site since before the Civil War. The building as it now stands was known as the 23rd District School until 1942 when it was renamed for Dr. Louis M. Schiel, principal of the 23rd District School from 1885 until his retirement in 1927. Louis Schiel was a great believer in life-long learning. After he became an educator, he attended medical school where he was valedictorian of his class. The school building was a neighborhood school, the German language magnet, AWL, and finally, twenty-five years as the home of the Schiel “Stars”.
Schiel has shown a tradition of excellence since its reorganization into an arts enrichment school. Schiel received an Excellent designation from the State of Ohio for 4 of the 8 years that such classifications have been awarded. In its final year, Schiel was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education. The Schiel family is very excited to now be part of SCPA.