The school, the brainchild of Dr. Dan Dodds, began in 2000

ATASCADERO — It’s been 22 years since Atascadero’s Fine Arts Academy (FAA) came into being. And though COVID-19 stopped its 20-year celebration and reunion in 2020, staff, past students, and the school’s founders are remedying that this year.

The Fine Arts Academy began in 2000 and was the brainchild of Dr. Dan Dodds. Dodds was Atascadero Unified School District superintendent from 1997-99. 

“He [Dodds] started two ‘academy’ model schools — Santa Rosa, which had an accelerated reading program as well as other innovative alternative curriculums, and the Fine Arts Academy, which, in addition to a full academic curriculum, would also offer a comprehensive Arts Program every day. We were hired to put the school together,” said Alan Pietsch, one of FAA’s founders. “I should also add that there was a great deal of support from interested parents, which helped the school board approve the school. It was quite a bold and daring venture.”  

Getting through this together, Atascadero

The Fine Arts Academy’s founding team in 2000 consisted of Principal Steve Ventura and Secretary Evie Lanier, along with Cheryl Hockett, Steve Collins, Susan Donk, Melissa Bourbeau, and Pietsch as the academic and art teachers. In addition, Beth Klemm taught chorus, Brian Wallace taught band, Suzanne Culver taught drama, and Vicki Buerster taught Spanish. Though the Fine Arts Academy has art in its title, it’s not strictly an arts school. It shares the same academic curriculum as the rest of the schools in the AUSD as it is a public school.

“The school is essentially the same model we created in 2000,” Pietsch said. “The Arts Program offerings change somewhat from year to year, depending on the interests and background of the faculty. 

“It is grades 4-8, an unusual grade combination for a school. We started with one class/grade — approx. 135 students. We grew to two classes/grade — about 250 students. I believe the enrollment now is a little over 200. We’ve had several different principals during this time. The school also added a Resource Center to help students with learning needs, which has helped a great deal.” 

Back when the Fine Arts Academy started, they were up against people who didn’t think they would be successful, and budget cuts in the early 2000s. But with the help of the AUSD board and Assistant Superintendent Kathy Hanneman, the school survived.

“Our 20-year anniversary would have been in 2020, so, of course, it didn’t happen, nor in 2021. So finally, this year, we felt it was safe enough to have an in-person reunion,” Pietsch said. “We have spread the word to alumni and families scattered across the country. You cannot believe how connected people who go to this school are. It is truly a unique school and has a profound impact on many young people. 

“All of the original staff will be there, as well as many alumni from the early years as well as from recent years. It will be very emotional — and fun! We just really want to celebrate how successful this school has been for over 20+ years. It is an inspiring story of what is possible with some imagination and a lot of hard work.” 

The Fine Arts 20-Year Celebration and Reunion will take place on Saturday, May 14, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Fine Arts Academy. It will feature a barbecue by Old SLO BBQ for a small fee and drinks for purchase, an open mic for sharing stories, and an alumni gallery. You can sign up for the celebration at: sites.google.com/view/faa20yrcelebration/home?authuser=0

“Atascadero should be very proud of this school,” Pietsch said. “This city has always been a home of inspiration and vision, beginning with E.G. Lewis. The success of the school is also a tribute to the support and commitment this community has always given its schools. It is truly a wonderful school district.” 

For more information on the school, you can watch Pietsch’s documentary, “The Atascadero Fine Arts Academy — A Jewel of a School,” at sites.google.com/a/atasusd.org/fine-arts-academy/open-enrollment-information-for-interested-students-families?authuser=0