Metropolitan School of the Arts Aims To Be A Private Boarding School At The Workhouse Arts Center Campus

“It’s a marriage of interests that makes sense,” said Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland.

A ballet class at the Metropolitan School of the Arts at the Workhouse Arts Center. (Photo by James Cullum)
A ballet class at the Metropolitan School of the Arts at the Workhouse Arts Center. (Photo by James Cullum)
While the Workhouse Arts Center struggles with an uncertain future, the property's newest tenant is gaining momentum. The Metropolitan School of the Arts opened its doors to 12 high schoolers this month (50 are anticipated for next year) in the Workhouse's Building 4, and already its founder and president Melissa Dobbs is envisioning the property as the future home of a private boarding school for youngsters serious about careers in the arts.

"I can make this campus come to life. I have an idea and I'm going to follow through with it," said Dobbs to Patch. "The one thing that I have is a vision, a very clear vision of what this place could be and I am committed to getting there."

If realized, Dobbs’ school could one-day dominate the Workhouse campus. It would also be one of four private boarding schools in the country to focus on the performing arts. 

The Vision and Its Challenges

"Our goal here is to develop the underdeveloped buildings that have not been touched on this campus," said Dobbs. "That means the theater that's not been built yet - we're going to do that. The event center at the end of the quad - we will make sure that gets built. There's two buildings behind there, the former campus gymnasium - we're going to renovate that. The barn - we're going to do that too."

Dobbs has signed no agreements with the Workhouse over these plans, and making the campus a 24-hour facility means a rezoning process through the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to allow boarding. Her hope is to have students living on the campus or another school-operated facility within four years.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland has not met Dobbs, but favors amending the proffers and allowing students to live on campus.

“It’s a marriage of interests that makes sense,” Hyland told Patch. “We ought to make the wedding happen. I think it’s a great opportunity for the Lorton Arts Foundation.”

John Mason, President and CEO of the Workhouse Arts Center, knows that Dobbs wants to renovate buildings on campus, but so far all discussions have been focused on accommodating the 51 students signed up next year with three additional classrooms.

In the meantime, the fate of the nonprofit arts center is in the hands of Fairfax County and Wells Fargo, since the Workhouse can't pay the bills on over $52 million in bond debt. The Fairfax County Executive is expected to release a five year plan on Workhouse sustainability to the Board of Supervisors next month.

Dobbs said she has been meeting with potential donors for building redevelopment. 

“I’ve been working diligently to create corporate relationships to complete the theater and other projects on campus. Other investors are already interested in supporting the school,” she said. “We have walked into a beautiful facility that the Lorton Arts Foundation has spent a lot of money on to get to this point… Big things take turns sometimes, and I see this as a fork in the road for this campus.”

As for the yet-to-be renovated events center, Mason said the partially renovated building, which needs up to $3 million to be finished, will likely be put out to bid.

"I'm cognizant that Melissa Dobbs on behalf of MSA would certainly like to have the theatre building W-12 renovated," said Mason. "The next step would be for MSA to bring us a proposed business plan to do that… We are in discussion with MSA about the best approach of expanding classroom capabilities on the campus. Melissa Dobbs will need at least three classrooms by next August. So, I envision that we will lease additional space to her by next July."

Vacant Buildings at the Workhouse

  • W-1 Event Center: Partially renovated. The LAF has spent approximately $1.9 million on the building, and $2-$3 million needed to finish interior.
  • W-12: 350-seat multi-purpose theater building.
  • W-13: A potential administration building or a restaurant (the tenant will have to foot the bill for renovation)
  • W-15: Previously renovated and damaged by a storm, requiring repair work
  • W-17, W-18: Two connected buildings (the former prison gymnasium) behind the event center
  • W-22: A music hall and amphitheater

Going to School at the Workhouse

“It’s amazing. We spend three-and-a-half hours every day doing math, science, English and social studies and the rest of the day is art,” said MSA sophomore Maya Brettell.

Brettell, 14, is the daughter of Academy Director Nicole Zuchetto, and wants to become an actress and live in New York City. She spent her first high school year at South County High School in Lorton.

“I’ve just gotten more dedicated,” said Brettell. “This is just going to give me a leg up. I’m not scared anymore about being a step behind like I felt at South County.”

The idea behind the Metropolitan School of the Arts came in Feb. 2013, when Dobbs and her family were trying to figure out where to send Cayli Dobbs, her 14-year-old daughter who aspires to be a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. 

Within seven months the school opened with a 10,000 square-foot classroom property in Kingstowne and spent $350,000 to renovate building W-4 at the Workhouse. The Workhouse space currently supports three dance studios and a classroom for students. 

Dobbs, a classically trained dance teacher who studied at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, George Mason University and the Royal Academy of Dance in London, started the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in Fairfax Station and Alexandria in 2001. She and her staff have taught over 10,000 singers, dancers and actors of all ages. This year, the company became a non-profit to allow for grant funding.

“The work/life balance of a student pursuing the performing arts (at a public high school) is not quite balanced,” said Dobbs. “They wake up at 6:00 in the morning and stay at school until 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. and then drive straight from school to the studio to train until 9:00 or 10:00 at night every day. And then they go home to do homework until 2 a.m. and wake up a few hours later and do it all over again.”

And where will the students eat lunch? Dobbs’ mother, Janet Dobbs, will soon open an organic cafe at the Workhouse.

“You can make a great living being an artist. That's one of the things I want to teach these students,” said Dobbs, who has performed at the Kennedy Center, President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Gala, and Walt Disney World. “You have to prepare yourself for what life brings you. The time will come when your break happens and you just have to be ready for it.”

What do you think about the Metropolitan School of the Arts at the Workhouse? Tell us in the comments section!


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