A home for the arts at Aquinas

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San Manuel Tribe, Shea complete fundraising drive for new $10 million performing arts center

SAN BERNARDINO—When Katja Shephard stepped on to a stage to act for the first time at age six, she knew she was home.


 “You build your own self when you’re out there,” says Shephard, a sophomore at Aquinas High School. “You learn how to do things that you didn’t think you could do before.”

 Shephard and others who are devoted to the performing arts have reason to be excited with the recent announcement that Aquinas has secured the funds to build a new $10 million Performing Arts Center on campus.

 The school celebrated the building campaign, which coincides with its 60th Anniversary, on January 28 with a Mass and blessing of the ground where the Center will be built. Key donors were on hand, including the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which provided a $3 million gift, J.F. Shea Company and Shea Family Charities.

 “For 60 years Aquinas High School has provided a well-rounded, values-centered education to thousands of students from the greater San Bernardino area,” said San Manuel Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena. “We are honored to join with Shea Family Charities to help showcase the importance of theater arts and music education for generations of future students.” 

 The 17,000 square foot San Manuel Performing Arts Center will feature a 350-seat theater, a band room, a rehearsal space, a dressing room and a production room or “scene shop,” along with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. The school hopes to have the building ready for use by November 2017, a day that can’t come soon enough for performing arts students at Aquinas. Drama and musical performances are currently done twice a year in the school’s gymnasium with makeshift sound, lighting and sets.

 “It will be better if we can have the full experience,” said sophomore Chris Jara, who likes set design and other behind-the-scenes work. “I’m kind of excited.”

 The new center will be the impetus for establishing a Visual and Performing Arts Academy at Aquinas, said School President Jim Brennan, offering four levels of drama and art classes, two levels of music classes and a video production class. The performing arts center and academy could give Aquinas a new appeal, Brennan suggested.

 “There are a lot of kids out there that are really interested in [the arts],” he said. “The performing arts program will attract some kids that may not have considered us before.”

 Brianne Lopez, who teaches drama at Aquinas, loves the idea of expanding the performing arts program because she believes the arts are unique and important for students. It would also buck the trend of declining prioritization and funding for arts programs in area schools, she said.

 “The arts deal with the personal growth of the student,” Lopez said. “When they’re on the stage they shine brighter.

 “You don’t have to be an athlete or a braniac. With the arts, you can still find a way to efficiently express who you are.”

 As part of the launch of the new performing arts center, Aquinas will partner with both Junior University of San Bernardino, a longtime provider of children’s musical theater, and California State University, San Bernardino to provide young people of greater San Bernardino with more opportunities to participate in the arts.

 The $3 million gift from the San Manuel Tribe is the latest example of its financial support for Aquinas. Two year ago, the Tribe contributed over $200,000 for the installation of a new track at the schools and renovated the football field. Brennan said the school counts at least four members of the San Manuel as alumni. Moving forward, Aquinas will adjust its curriculum to include more Native American studies and will hold an event each November to celebrate Native American Culture Month, said Brennan.