Rising enrollment at Free State High School displaces theater classes

Free State High School students rehearse for acting class in the school's black box theater.

Those who enter the black box theater at Free State High School are likely to find students on stage practicing their acting or working as crew members behind the scenes. But come next school year, that is less likely to be the case.

School administrators recently announced the theater will be used as a “flexible space” to accommodate the growing student population. As a result, drama classes currently held in the theater will be moved to a regular classroom starting next school year so the theater can be used for additional purposes, such as meetings or testing.

The school’s drama director said the move will negatively affect students who use the stage daily to practice both acting and behind-the-scenes work such as lighting or scenery.

“There’s a multitude of things the kids need as far as this space,” said Free State drama director Nancee Beilgard. “It’s just bad for the program in general not to be able to have theater in the theater.”

Free State High School students rehearse for acting class in the school's black box theater.

But district administrators said the change is what is best for students overall. The student population at Free State, located in northwest Lawrence, has been on the rise in recent years. Since 2012, the number of students attending the school has increased by nearly 200, from 1,489 to 1,677, according to district enrollment reports. By contrast, the student population at Lawrence High School in central Lawrence has remained more stable, increasing by about 75 students in the same time period.

“Decisions regarding the use of school learning spaces are driven by what is in the best interest of all students, so in the case of Free State High School’s black box theater, the priority is how to best serve more than 1,600 students with the space available,” Superintendent Rick Doll said via email.

Last year’s bond construction at Free State added several classrooms to the school, increasing its capacity from 1,675 to 1,800 students. But with current residential development in Lawrence largely concentrated in the northwest part of the city, the enrollment report projects student populations at Free State will continue to rise next school year. Doll said the decision to designate the theater as a flex space was made by Free State administrators with the support of district administration.

“In order to best meet teaching and learning needs, school leaders constantly evaluate use of space as changes occur in student enrollment, and at the secondary-school level, course enrollment,” Doll said.

Regardless of growing enrollment at Free State, Beilgard said the theater is not meant to be a common space and that utilizing areas such as the library, auditorium or conference rooms would be a better alternative.

“They keeping calling it the black box, but it’s the black box theater,” Beilgard said. “And for them to be treating it as real estate I think is really a bad premise.”

Theater student Ethan Anderson agreed with that sentiment. Ethan is a freshman at Free State and took part in both of the theater department’s black box performances this school year. Ethan said he was upset about the change because the black box theater is used a lot by drama students.

“It’s kind of where we go, like we don’t have another place because the (main) stage is always occupied by choirs, band and orchestra and whatnot,” Ethan said. “But that’s where we can meet, that’s our area.”

But Doll said the black box theater isn’t meant to be used exclusively for theater.

“Except for specially equipped classrooms, such as science labs or career and tech classrooms, all classrooms in the district are flexible-use learning spaces, including cafeterias, gyms, libraries and black box theaters,” Doll said.

As a flexible-use space, the theater will be open to multiple purposes. In order to reserve it for drama activities, drama teachers will have to sign up just like any other teacher wishing to use the space, Beilgard said. She said she prefers leaving the current system in place, in which other teachers can request that drama classes temporarily vacate the space so it can be used for another purpose.

“To let it sit idle any of the time just seems silly when you could just leave us in here and do it as needed,” Beilgard said.