New center creates performance, educational opportunities

The new Forsyth County Arts and Learning center in Cumming provides a home performance venue for the county's 41 schools.

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The new Forsyth County Arts and Learning center in Cumming provides a home performance venue for the county's 41 schools.

It’s been five years in the making, but the wait was worth it for Forsyth County school students who now have a state-of-the-art performance venue to host a range of drama clubs, choirs, orchestras, bands and more.

The Forsyth County Arts and Learning center (FoCAL) is an 81,000-square foot facility built on land behind the county’s Board of Education building in Cumming. It boasts a main theater with 1,800 seats, a banquet space for 250 guests and a 250-seat black box that doubles as an event area. The public got its first glimpse of the $25 million project a few weeks ago as groups from 29 schools welcomed visitors with an array of performances.

The facility provides a home stage for the district’s almost 53,000 students whose own schools often lack adequate space, said Director Dawn Phipps, a former administrator and language arts/theater teacher.

“This project is a passion of mine, an interesting marriage of my area of curriculum instruction and school leadership,” she said. “Before this, our honors chorus was renting space at a church. Now, our 41 schools can go to one facility owned by the district.”

Phipps added that the center now gives the district a venue to host large band, choir or drama competitions rather than having students travel to other locations. She’s also scheduling a number of educational opportunities; one of the first is a partnership with Kennesaw State University to create a project around Black History month in February. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen will be told with orchestrations and multiple stations students can visit, including KSU’s traveling art exhibit on the aviators. Another idea is to have an “orchestra petting zoo” where students can get their hands on musical instruments.

The center also provides a home base for the Penguin Project, Forsyth’s chapter of a national program that offers drama opportunities to special needs students. As FoCAL’s director, Phipps works closely with the Special Education division to involve students and parents in the project.

“There are only a couple of Penguin Projects in Georgia,” said Phipps. “We’re happy to have received grants from the district’s education foundation and the Forsyth County Arts Alliance to help with funding.”

The project has already lined up about 20 students with intellectual or physical disabilities to star in a junior version of the Broadway show “Annie” in March. Cast members are paired with age-appropriate peer-mentors who rehearse and perform alongside them on stage.

“The arrangement creates relationships, and develops cognitive and communication skills,” said Phipps. “We’ve had our first rehearsal, and it was so exciting to see how much enthusiasm there is. We’re also starting to hear some excitement from the community about the project as well.”

Information about the FoCAL center is online at

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