By Dan Haley
Last fall, I went with a colleague to visit the Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School in Austin. It is housed, along with two companion uses, in the old Siena High School at Central and Washington.
We got there in the late afternoon, just as school was letting out. But even though it was 3:30, most of the kids weren't heading out. No, they were crowding into a remarkably small space where Dawn Ferencak, associate publisher of our Austin Weekly News, and I were talking to the two very enthused leaders of the school.
The kids, in their tidy uniforms and stretching from say fourth grade to eighth, were pulling out from storage their musical instruments for the start of a two-hour daily orchestra practice. There were, we were told, 60 kids in the orchestra. And, amazingly to us, we were told the entire orchestra project — the director, the instruments — were backed by the board of the Ravinia Festival up on the North Shore. Had been for several years. And not "backed" in the sense of "Here is a large check," but in the reality of board members turning up on the West Side and the kids tooling up to Winnetka to spend time with musicians at Ravinia.
Yes, it was inspiring, and, as we listened to the kids tune up, it was impressive.
I had another interest in the school space since my sister Mary had attended Siena in the late 1960s. I asked how the school was using the ill-advised 1950s addition that featured a wall of glass on classrooms, all with a southern exposure. Seems that in the past 50 years a very fine type of window shading has been invented and now keeps those classrooms at less than petri-dish intensity.
And I asked about the auditorium which I remembered as lovely and large in a mid-century modern sort of way. Well, said the Circle Rock folks, the auditorium was more or less sealed off, in an advanced state of decay. Someday, they said, we will come around with a plan to restore that space.
Well that moment is now. Last week, along with my sister, we attended an event hosted by Catalyst Circle Rock, Circle Urban Ministries and Rock of Our Salvation Church, the three related non-profits that share the space. And the open house was held on the stage and in the seating area of the now-gutted auditorium. All the rot has been rooted, and what is left is the bones of a space that will, donors willing, be restored into a performance space for the school, the church and the West Side community.
Last week, after the mingling and amidst the short speeches and pleas, the performance was by the orchestra from the school. Now up to 80 "scholars," the Catalyst orchestra played three pieces with verve and great musicality. Certainly at the top of any grade school orchestra I've ever heard. And to see that stage filled, and perhaps a hundred folding chairs filled with enthusiastic supporters from Austin and Oak Park was very stirring.
The architect, a local named Steve Saunders, described the space as irreplaceable in this era and said that if financial support was strong, the auditorium would be complete in one year. He estimates it will cost $3.5 million to complete the work. Others said that more than $1 million has been pledged if full funding can be attained.
How many of us jump off the crowded Ike and wend our way back to Oak Park along Washington Boulevard? Have you ever looked at this massive old school and assumed bleakness inside? Well I'm here to say this school is ambitious for its students, attuned to its neighborhood and in need of our help.