Sumner High School
Sumner High School

Sumner High School revives in an arts spotlight

On Tuesday night, March 9, 2021, St. Louis’s Board of Education voted unanimously to keep one of the most historic and culturally relevant institutions in the region open, Sumner High School. Sumner, along with eleven other schools, was facing elimination due to an overall collapse in enrollment in St. Louis public schools over the last two decades.

The Board of Ed was swayed by an ambitious plan presented by the community-based tourism organization 4theVille; St. Louis Shakespeare Festival; community groups Sumner Renaissance and Sumner PRFC; and the consulting firm Marketing Analytics. Backing up the plan is an infusion of investment from the St. Louis arts community. A letter signed by leaders of many of St. Louis’s arts institutions, including Lisa Melandri of CAM, was presented to the board in December. Since that time, many of those organizations have come together with a commitment to be part of the development of a new Sumner, an academic space that offers public high school students a curriculum with a focus on arts and activism. The first high school for African Americans west of the Mississippi (1875), with an illustrious list of alumni including Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Grace Bumbry, Dick Gregory, Robert Guillame, and Tina Turner, Sumner makes a comeback with the support of artists and local arts organizations. 

Four elective “pathways” will be part of the new Sumner curriculum with the assistance of local expertise: the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and the Black Rep participate in the theater arts pathway; Ballet 314 and La Voûte in dance; Opera Theatre of St. Louis in music; Craft Alliance Center of Art + Design and CAM in visual arts; and COCA providing professional development workshops and supplies.

When CAM Executive Director Lisa Melandri was approached to sign the arts leaders’ letter of support in December, she knew that what she could offer in spirit she could back up with a proven course of action. In 2017, Vashon High School and CAM partnered in a comprehensive studio arts program for sophomores, where none had been taught consistently for the previous five years. That program has expanded to include additional arts electives available to all students. CAM teaching-artists offer hands-on art instruction using a different medium and different themes each quarter. CAM plans to adapt its Vashon High School partnership model, now in its fourth year, to Sumner. 

Lisa connected CAM’s Director of Learning and Engagement, Michelle Dezember, with Tom Ridgely of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, who spearheaded the collective movement of arts organizations to restore Sumner. Michelle believes the Board of Education reversed course on the school’s closure because they saw the commitment “not just in word but in actions. People signed on for more than a one-time workshop.” 

Michelle and CAM School and Community Program Manager Miriam Ruiz have already been in dialogue with the school’s art teachers and principal. In the months to come they’ll collectively “hammer out classes and figure out what is best for each student.” CAM will be offering teaching-artists scheduled for the Vashon-CAM partnership an additional quarter of teaching at Sumner.

“Our shared experience with COVID starkly reminded arts organizations that community is what we depend on,” Michelle says. “Our relationships needed to be reconfigured, and so when we saw a neighborhood that we have collectively neglected, we had higher levels of empathy for what it meant to step up. With the themes of our current exhibition, Stories of Resistance, so much on my mind lately, I am hopeful with these signs—how quickly things can come together when people work together.”

Eddie Silva