The CLEVELAND SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, at 2064 Stearns Road, just west of the CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY campus, was, as of 2006, considered one of the city's leading public schools and is perhaps the district's most visible and popular program for grades (as of 2023) 9-12. By many objective measurements - proficiency scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and college placement - the school has regularly matched or outperformed other city public schools for years and has been competitive with many suburban schools.

Originally, CSA was created as part of Cleveland's effort to desegregate its schools in the wake of a 1976 federal court order. Prodded by the courts and under pressure from a public opposed to forced busing for neighborhood schools, desegregation administrators turned to the idea of magnet schools, each offering a specialized curriculum, which in theory would draw students of all races from across the district. In keeping with the multi-cultural vision, an "Arts, Heritage and Language Magnet School" was to be located downtown, midway between the city's heavily black East Side and its predominantly white West Side. The school's original concept was to celebrate the full spectrum of diversity in Cleveland and a curriculum complete with Polish dancing, Appalachian folk music, and an impressive variety of language instruction was planned. In February, 1981, the school opened its doors at Jane Addams Vocational High School on East 30th St. and at the nearby Tri-C campus. (see: CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE)

Ironically, considering its politically integrationist roots and the multi-ethnic ambitions of its founders, the student body from the start has been overwhelmingly black. Moreover, within a year or so of its launch, the school's curricular emphasis had shifted to the arts at the expense of any wider cultural pretense. Stirred by the 1980 movie "Fame," which depicted a group of aspiring performing arts students in New York City, Cleveland educators by the fall of 1981 had rechristened their fledgling entity the Cleveland School of the Arts and had found it a building of its own - its site in 2006 - at UNIVERSITY CIRCLE, the heart of the city's cultural life. Before CSA's arrival, the Stearns Road building had long been owned by the school district and over the years it had had several iterations. At one time it was the site of Observation Elementary School which, as the name suggests, was a school where master teachers observed the work of student-teachers from Case who themselves were teaching the primary grades. Later the building housed district administrative offices. Just prior to 1981, the building was closed.

An enduring controversy over CSA's funding - and the recurrent talk of shutting down the school - has its roots in the change in the school's original mission. Arts programs cost far more money than normally would be allocated to a regular public school. The initial multi-cultural concept for the school, which garnered backing from district headquarters did not dwell exclusively on the arts. The evolution in the school's focus thus left it without a secure base of support from a perpetually cash-strapped administration. As a result, CSA carefully maintained an image as an oasis in an educational desert, which provided a priceless opportunity for underprivileged youth teeming with artistic talent and drive. This and the school's ability to generate positive publicity were essential to counteract cost-minded critics and to ensure its survival.

The lack of reliable, consistent funding prompted CSA to seek outside help for its burgeoning arts programs. The Friends of the Cleveland School of the Arts, was founded in 1983 by a group of well-connected Clevelanders - primarily women - to secure this support. Over the years, corporate and foundation funding have led to impressive results, such as artist-in-residence programs which included dance instruction from the world-famous Pilobolus Company, a series of original stage productions at the Cleveland Playhouse, and a school jazz ensemble that took part in a festival in Japan. Recognition, in the form of awards and media attention, quickly followed and applications for admission soared. The school's high point - in terms of achievement, notoriety and also extravagance - may have been reached in the late 1990s when the school's costly and quasi-professional production of "An Urban Nutcracker," a gritty, modern takeoff on Tchaikovsky's classic, garnered excellent reviews and coverage in Time magazine. In 2001-2003, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation recognized CSA as one of five premier performing arts schools in the country.

CSA's success has rested in part on its low student mobility rate, an intangible factor often important in determining school quality. Because CSA is regarded as a desirable school to attend, it is less susceptible to high rates of transience. Thus at CSA, relationships - be they among students or between students and faculty - often build up over a long period of time. This has created a relatively strong social fabric that indirectly leads to achievement in many areas. Adding to the stability is the fact that in 25 years (1981-2006) CSA has had only three principals.

In the early 2000s a combination of downbeat and interrelated factors - the September 11 attacks, an ongoing financial crisis in the Cleveland school district, the drop in stock values and broader economic problems in Cleveland brought cutbacks in much of CSA's program. Teachers were laid off, staff positions frozen, class sizes increased, and the Friends board became largely dormant. These reverses were partially offset by stronger connections with CSA's next-door neighbor, Case Western Reserve University.

In 2006-2007, CSA had an enrollment of about 625 students and had 40 faculty positions. Barbara Walton was the principal, a job she assumed in 1999. Also in 2006, CSA continued to formalize its affiliation with Dike Elementary School on East 61st Street, a site which CSA administrators referred to as "CSA - Lower Campus." The district was developing an arts program for the lower grades at Dike modeled on CSA.

Benjamin Sperry

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