‘The Good News Downtown’: Renovation Highlights Arts-Infused Curriculum at Sts. Peter & Paul School

By John Lynch

If you haven’t seen the new building and the renovation of Sts. Peter & Paul School in downtown Lexington… too bad. You’re missing something special.

In 2010, SPPS, a preschool-eighth grade regional Catholic school of 500 students, completed a $12 million renovation and addition to the original school, built in 1913.

The main campus sits on Short Street next to the Lexington Opera House and across the street from the Lexington Children’s Theatre and Explorium of Lexington, and is within walking distance of the Living Arts & Science Center, Lexington Public Library and Gratz Park.

Located in the heart of this downtown cultural district, SPPS envisioned a program devoted to the arts, in which an expanded program including band, choral, drama and visual arts are integrated into all aspects of school life.

Fittingly, the centerpiece of the 2010 renovation – which included the new Knights of Columbus Gymnasium, cafeteria and Alltech Science Lab – was the W. Paul & Lucille Caudill Little Theatre, a 250-seat showcase for student and community talent. The theatre was made possible by a $465,000 grant from the Little Foundation.

Along with student performances and concerts, the renovated theatre has hosted Lexington Children’s Theatre camps, SCAPA recitals, community gatherings and has been a stop on the Gallery Hop.

Two years after completion, the renovation already has realized the school vision.

“School leaders envisioned transforming SPPS into a downtown beacon for the arts, infusing the school curriculum with the arts while maintaining strong academics in a faith-based Catholic school,” said Jeanne Miller, the newly hired school president.

Miller has been joined by Principal Candace James to form a new leadership team that represents a break from tradition and reflects the school’s commitment to innovation.

SPPS is unique in that it has two distinct campuses – the school’s early childcare center, preschool and Kindergarten are on Barr Street next to St. Peter Church. The school also is regional, serving six parishes in two counties contributing to a diverse student population.

Adopting the president-principal leadership model seemed ideal, according to School Council Chairman Bill Barr, who is a successful Lexington businessman, SPPS parent and chairman of LexArts. His son, Garrett, is in the fourth grade.

“The more we looked at this concept, the more it seemed like a perfect fit,” he said. “Jeanne Miller has a strong business and fund-raising background, relieving the principal of those responsibilities so she can oversee the academic excellence that we enjoy.

“It was a dream to get Candace here, and they are both bright stars and will be tremendous assets to the school and the community.”

Miller and James may be new to their positions but not to the school. Miller, who owns a marketing firm, has been the school’s Director of Development since 2006.

Miller has been a member of the School Council, sat on the vision committee and managed the fund-raising campaign for the renovation.

Her daughter Allison is a fifth grader at the school, and her daughter Suzanne attended the school and is now a junior at Lexington Catholic. Another daughter, Rachel, attends Jessie Clark Middle School.

James also entered the SPPS community as a parent. Her 8-year-old twins Jack and Jenna are third-graders. Her daughter Shannon is enrolled at SCAPA.

James brings 22 years experience in education to the job. (“She is a good get,” Miller says.) A band teacher for eight years, James has been a classroom teacher, a middle school assistant principal, an elementary school principal, a district coordinator and, most recently, Associate Director for State & Federal Programs at Fayette County Public Schools.

After two decades in public schools, why switch to a private school?

“Practically, it probably makes more sense to stay with public schools, but my heart was saying that this is the right time and place,” she said. “I believe that education must be fun, experience-based with lots of hands-on learning. Kids don’t have to sit in desks all day.

“I’m impressed with the passion that people here have about the education of their kids, and everybody has high expectations. It’s a close-knit family, and there’s a bonding that goes on here.

“The school is the good news downtown.”

Key to that good news is the arts program. The renovation upgraded all the classrooms while maintaining the architectural integrity of the original building. Classrooms feature 14-foot ceilings and 8-foot windows.

The arts wing includes the theatre plus drama, music and visual arts classrooms in addition to the library, computer lab and a Spanish room. Students start Spanish in first grade.

The arts emphasis will only enhance the school’s already strong academics, school officials say. In 2006, SPPS was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept. of Education, and three years ago it was one of only 12 Catholic schools in the nation to receive a Catholic Schools for Tomorrow award.

A continued bright future is the goal, according to Miller, who has played an integral role in envisioning, adopting and fulfilling the school’s art-based vision.

“We have realized our vision with the renovation of the school despite the 2008 financial meltdown,” Miller said. “We’re proud that what seemed to be impossible to many has become a reality.

“We plan to continue to be good stewards, to fulfill that vision and maintain the academic traditions of a strong, faith-based Catholic school education.”