As circus leaders plan an expansion, they're aiming for a 99-year lease extension to remain on Sarasota High School's campus.
Leaders of the Circus Arts Conservatory hope to make Sarasota a United States hub for circus education and are planning an expansion of its 2.2-acre property on Bahia Vista Street.
To make that possible, conservatory leaders need approval from the Sarasota County School District because the organization's arena sits on Sarasota High School property.
Conservatory leaders appeared before the School Board on May 4 to inform members of their intentions and will return to present a master plan concept and ask for a 99-year extension to its lease.
In 2018, the Conservatory completed a $5 million arena renovation project, which brought a 30,000-square-foot space to the community. However, managing director Jennifer Mitchell said the organization already has outgrown its space.
Preliminary plans for an expanded campus include multipurpose facilities, dressing rooms, competition performance spaces, storage space and classrooms.
“The CAC headquartered here in Sarasota, in your school district, is more than just a nod to the Ringling Brothers circa legacy,” Mitchell said. “We are uniquely positioned to be the epicenter of circus arts and education here in America.”
In 2019, the Conservatory partnered with Sarasota High School to bring a magnet school, or student choice program, to the district. It is the only program of its kind in the nation. At first, the program allowed up to 50 students from throughout the district, but it has since doubled in size.
During the pandemic, the conservatory began an arts-integrated circus curriculum program at Booker Middle School, which is designed to feed students into the Sarasota High magnet program.
Students take courses in circus movement, mental training, managing injuries, physical theater, aerial awareness and acrobatics at Booker Middle and at the conservatory arena.
Over the last seven years, the conservatory has instructed more than 50,000 students in more than 35 Florida elementary, middle and high schools.
Classes are structured around arts-integrated educational programs that fulfill Florida standards by combining circus education with lessons in science, technology, engineering, arts and theater.
“For most people, the word circus is obviously synonymous with the Greatest Show on Earth and entertainment, but at CAC, it’s synonymous with the greatest teaching tool on Earth,” Mitchell said.
Assessments of 450 fifth grade students in CAC programs testing their knowledge of physics and Newton’s laws showed a learning gain of 56%. The fifth grade curriculum requires students to produce a contraption-based circus performance using science and engineering. About 93% of students had a passing score on the exam.
To make the partnerships viable longterm, CAC leaders are asking for a 99-year lease.
Sarasota High School Principal David Jones said the partnership has been successful and asked the board to approve the lease when it’s time to vote.
The board previously approved a 99-year lease for the Sarasota Art Museum, which also is located on the Sarasota High School campus.
“We’re simply asking for the same thing,” Jones said. “A 99-year lease will give them the assurance that we can build these great facilities, continue the legacy of the circus and bring great things to the area.”
Board members showed preliminary support for the expansion.
“We talk about it all the time — what outcome we want for the kids,” board member Tom Edwards said. “This is what we hope will happen. To see the hard work and the care and concern you have for them and the training come together. These kids are having a ball and they’re learning so much.”
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