Following the three R’s

Righting the Ship; Rebuilding Bridges; Raising the Bar

Photography provided by Angie Lipscomb Photography

It might have been the final curtain call if not for the new, top-notch cast and crew committed to their belief that, indeed, the show must go on.

Yes, the past year has been a challenging but brilliant debut by the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) leadership team, in close collaboration with dedicated teachers, parents, alumni, funders, donors and community partners, all focused on making the 2016-17 school year – and beyond – a stellar season. 

Principal Michael Owens and Artistic Director Angela Powell Walker, both SCPA alums, have dutifully anchored the seven-member leadership team, skillfully led by ever-exuberant Executive Director Nick Nissley, Ed.D. As explained in the school’s recent nautical-themed playbill, if you will – the school’s 2015-16 annual report – Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan assembled the leadership team at the helm with orders to bring the SCPA financial ship back from the brink after the school’s former fundraising arm, The Friends of SCPA, fell victim to a Ponzi scheme, causing choppy financial/management seas. 

Hence, the new leadership team’s course was charted based on “The Three R’s”:

Righting the Ship (executing the school’s stabilization plan)

Rebuilding Bridges (launching the school’s new 501 (c) (3) fundraising organization, The SCPA Fund, and reengaging relationships with stakeholders)

Raising the Bar (supporting the shaping of a culture of artistic and academic excellence)

“Nick Nissley is an amazing leader,” says Powell Walker. “He brings out the best in all of us. It is human nature to go to the negative when the problems you’re trying to fix exist in the land of ugliness. Nick is the perfect person to keep us out of the ugly. We’ve been able to move forward and do things and get things done instead of getting bogged down in the problems themselves. It’s always been about finding solutions.”

Powell Walker, who grew up in Avondale, graduated from SCPA in 1986, and went on to perform as an opera singer on the world stage for many years. She taught at several universities and secondary schools, including the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. She most recently served as CEO and artistic director of the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and as an adjunct faculty member at Northern Kentucky University teaching established techniques for vocal production. Powell Walker also was an adjunct at Washington Bible College and taught at Suitland High School Visual and Performing Arts, both in Lanham, Maryland.

“The school’s turnaround in the last year happened quickly because we were able to emphasize the things that are already working at the school and build on that,” she says. “We had to make sure that the things that mattered kept going.”

Powell Walker is proud to be part of the phenomenal SCPA leadership team. “You have to give back,” she says. “That’s how good things are sustained. That’s how the community is strengthened.”

Principal Owens, SCPA Class of 1988, who grew up on Cincinnati’s West End, could not agree more.

“We have a fantastic team. We all are vested in making SCPA a world-class school,” says Owens. “And we’ve been methodic; we’ve regrouped, talked and listened a lot. By focusing on The Three R’s, we’ve been able to put some needed systems in place so there is more consistency, more transparency. In this second year, I feel we are even more aware of and confident in the direction we need to go.”

Owens returned to Cincinnati following a successful professional career with Columbus Public Schools, where he served as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. He also served as the founding principal of Columbus City Preparatory School for Boys, where he developed the single-gender middle school from its inception. Prior to that, he was the assistant principal at Columbus’ Arts Impact Middle School, and he also taught at Columbus Africentric School, where he created the school song. In addition to teaching and starting his career in administration, Owens worked as a peer assistance and review consultant, and in the Columbus Leadership Intern Program.

“It has taken the dedication of everyone to make this turnaround happen,” Owens added. “The staff, students, parents, our entire community – we are all energized. We are all here for one another.”


From a parent’s perspective

Nolan Marx, an SCPA parent who chairs the Local School Decision Making Council (LSDMC), could not be more pleased with the improvements and growth this past year infused by the “laser-focused” new leadership team.

“We’re the only K-12 performing arts school in the country,” Marx says. “Our goal is to be a world-class performing arts and core academics school. From a parent’s perspective, I am extremely excited about that. We’re blessed in that we have a really diverse school. And it’s important to me that my son, Ethan, who is an eighth-grader, is exposed to a lot of social, ethnic and spiritual diversity while being pushed academically in core content like math and science.”


Thoughts from the private sector

It’s the high level of compassion, passion and intelligent decision-making exemplified by the new SCPA leadership team that has helped evoke a renewed sense of hope for the future, says Neal Mayerson, Ph.D, president of Mayerson Family Foundations.

Its Artistic Excellence Program, now in its sixth year at SCPA (with support from the National Endowment for the Arts), enhances and extends the pre-professional arts curriculum at SCPA with master classes, seminars and in-depth instruction from some of the finest artists/educators from around the world. More than 110 Master Artist programs have been conducted since the program began. And the Artists-in-Residence Program provides year-round instruction from Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians, Cincinnati Ballet dancers, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company actors and the Cincinnati Art Academy.

“It’s magical,” Mayerson says of the new SCPA leadership team. He admits he was concerned at first with the school district’s short window of opportunity for finding and hiring the best team of administrators possible to turn the struggling SCPA ship around.

“As private citizens, we wanted to help the school system do the best they can to help SCPA reach its potential,” Mayerson says. “When I found out that Michael and Angela are both SCPA graduates, I thought, ‘Wow! It’s all falling into place.’ When people go to a school and feel it has helped them grow and flourish, they appreciate the school’s influence. Michael and Angela are perfect examples of people who appreciated their SCPA student experience so much, they followed their dreams into a career opportunity that gives back to the community.”


The SCPA Fund is born

From the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education and its amended partner agreement with the Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center (GCAEC) rose The SCPA Fund, the school’s new and improved non-profit fundraising organization. Ongoing financial support is critical to maintaining the superior quality of SCPA’s artistic programs, says Tom Klinedinst, Jr., who chairs the fund’s independent board of directors. The school’s annual budget of about $11 million – funded through Cincinnati Public Schools – requires an estimated addition $500,000 each year to support the school’s artistic excellence programming.

Private donations equip SCPA to better serve the unique talents and needs of its diverse student population, Klinedinst says, making possible everything from basic student necessities to a variety of enrichment opportunities. SCPA essentials – staffing, equipment, sheet music, costumes and purchasing the rights to innovative productions, for example – would not be possible without The SCPA Fund. The organization operates in a much more formalized structure than what was in place in the past, he emphasizes, ensuring transparency and sound donation management.

“It’s been quite a year,” Klinedinst says. “The reinvigoration of the school and its potential has involved the collaborative efforts of the many diverse stakeholders, support groups and governing bodies of the school, and it is bringing positive results for SCPA, and most importantly, for the students. We’ve got concrete numbers to back up the improvements in artistic and academic excellence.

 “Cincinnati is a very strong arts-based community. It always has been. So having and sustaining an excellent feeder system for arts and arts appreciation as served by SCPA makes all the sense in the world.”

The School For Creative and Performing Arts at the Erich Kunzel Center For Arts and Education (SCPA) is located at 108 West Central Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, call Nick Nissley, Ed.D., Executive Director at 513.363.8047, or visit