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Destiney Rivers sings in a performance of songs from the musical The Lion King at the new Edison School for the Arts.

Destiney Rivers sings in a performance of songs from the musical The Lion King at the new Edison School for the Arts.

Scott Elliott

The long road to a new site ends in song and inspiration at Edison School for the Arts

Arael Stigler was dressed as a lion Tuesday night when she walked to the front of the stage at the new Edison School for the Arts.

The mayor, superintendent and state schools chief had already addressed the audience but it was Arael, a fifth grader, belting out the opening line from a song, that put a charge into all the kids in the room.

“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!” she sang.

The Zulu words, which mean, “Here comes a lion, Father,” signal the opening of the musical, and the classic animated film, The Lion King.

Kids across the packed auditorium sprung to attention and whipped their heads toward the stage.

Even before Edison’s official debut this year as an arts-themed magnet school, the elementary arts school last year at School 70 organized students ranging in age from 9 to 11 to put together a more-than-credible version of the children’s favorite.

The show sold out all three performances last spring at School 70, the district’s former arts-themed magnet school, and some of those students reprised it for the dignitaries, and their parents and families, at the Edison’s official opening night.

The adults in the room were nearly as moved as the kids.

“It’s so clear those kids were all really into the performance,” school board President Mary Ann Sullivan said. “Arts is such a good motivator across the curriculum. It spills over into everything you do.”

Tuesday’s coming out party for Edison, which began classes at its new location with the start of school earlier this month, was the final step in a sometimes painful process of reorganizing the arts magnet programs at Indianapolis Public Schools.

The reorganization included closing the once-famous Key Learning Academy after years of debate about its future to make way for Edison to take over its building at South White River Parkway, just across the river from downtown.

Key, which opened to worldwide headlines in 1987, was the first school of its kind. It was widely studied by education researchers for its curriculum, which was inspired by Howard Gardner, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, who devised a theory that attempted to categorize human behaviors that he felt qualified as “intelligence.” Once a district crown jewel, it slid toward poor test scores and other troubles over the past decade.

Key closed at the end of last school year as part of a plan that moved the elementary arts magnet program from School 70, on the city’s north side, to just west of downtown in the former Key building.

Unlike School 70, which served only elementary school grades, the new Edison program will serve students from Kindergarten up to 8th grade. That change comes as Broad Ripple High School has dropped middle school grades from its arts magnet program.

The vacated School 70, meanwhile, has become the fourth Center for Inquiry magnet school.

Before it was rechristened Key Learning Academy, the school on the banks of the White River was known as IPS School 47 and was named for inventor Thomas Edison. The district decided to return the school to those roots.

After all that, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was gratified by the stirring Lion King performance and a packed house of parents on Tuesday.

“We hit the mark with this school,” he said. “We have an amazing leader in (Principal) Nathan Tuttle. He fully embraced the vision. And I was blown away by the staff that was assembled here. We have teachers from all across Marion County and IPS. It is one of the strongest staffs we have.”

Following speeches by Ferebee, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Mayor Joe Hogsett, Tuttle cut a small ribbon with an enormous pair of scissors, which brought giggles and cheers from delighted students.

Then auditorium lights dimmed, the costumed students came on stage and Arael lifted the mic to begin the show. Even months removed from the spring’s sellouts, the cast appeared practiced. For the youngest in the audience, the performance inspired awe.

Near the back of the room, a little boy scooted to the edge of his seat. And as a group of young actors portraying the bad guys in the story made their entrance, he let out a loud gasp.

“Those are the hyenas!” he said dramatically.