Gone are the old – and some would say uncomfortable – wooden seats that were installed when William R. Rochelle High School opened in 1950 as an all-Black high school during segregation.
In their place are plush seats in the refurbished auditorium of what is now known as Rochelle School of the Arts. It debuted in 1992 as a K-8 Performing Arts school, the first of its kind in Florida and the second of its kind in the country. Rochelle has been a model for the various other performing arts elementary and middle schools in the state that have followed.
The revamped auditorium at Rochelle had its official unveiling this month, with alumni of the former high school in attendance.
“Rochelle School of the Arts has a rich history and is an important part of the fabric of this community,” said School Board member Kay Fields, who helped to cut the ribbon on the new auditorium. “This school is very dear to my heart. My father-in-law taught industrial art at Rochelle High School and my oldest daughter was one of the first students who attended Rochelle School of the Arts under the leadership of the late Mrs. Delores Brundidge. My youngest daughter attended RSA under the leadership of Mrs. Jackie Moore.”
Fields said when talk first began about refurbishing the theater, a discussion about tearing down the theater to build a new one only lasted “about a minute … That idea was immediately shot down.”
Last July, work began to transform the school’s aging auditorium into a modern home for performing arts. In addition to new seating for the audience, the overhaul provides greater accessibility for those with disabilities, fresh paint and carpeting, and upgraded fiber optic connectivity.
“Since the beginning of this school year, our students have had to use either our gym or other facilities such as Kathleen Senior High School, so we are so happy to return home and have the use of our own auditorium,” Principal Carol Griffin said. “We appreciate the administrators opening up their facilities while our auditorium was being renovated.”
It came with a price tag of more than $574,000, funded by Polk County’s half-cent sales tax, which voters renewed in 2018.
The school’s Show Chorus performed with Fields, Superintendent Fred Heid, Mayor Bill Mutz and City Commissioner Sam Simmons on hand for the event. A dance concert on April 21 and 22 will be the next performance in the new space.
“Through this significant investment, the auditorium will continue to host special events and showcase Rochelle’s talented students for many years to come,” district officials said in a press release.
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