The Salt Lake Board of Education on Tuesday approved the first charter school in the state that will share programs directly with a traditional district high school.

The Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, an independent district charter school, is set to open next fall with its primary thrust being in music, theater and dance.

"This is really unique and exciting — it's a hybrid — and if we figure it out and do it well we will be able to stretch tax dollars like it's never been done before," said Salt Lake Superintendent McKell Withers.

SLSPA, or SPA as it is more commonly known, will target students who want to pursue careers in the performing arts and will prepare students to enter conservatories.

The board has been debating on the charter since early fall, but school leaders say it is an opportunity for Salt Lake City to catch up to other Western cities who have had similar programs for years.

The school's enrollment is projected to be near 250 next year and then grow to around 400 in the next three years.

Students who attend the new charter school would take core classes that are required for graduation at Highland High and take their arts elective courses at SPA. Highland students will also have the option to take classes at the charter school.

SPA founder Shalee Schmidt said students at the charter school also will have a social advantage — being able to take part in traditional high school activities and clubs that most charters are unable to fully offer.

The charter's facility will be built next to Highland High and is planned to have a 350- to 400-seat auditorium, drama and music suites, and a dance room complete with a double-spring floor similar to that used by Ballet West.

The school is set to open next school year. However, if the building is not yet complete by fall, SPA students will meet in Highland High until the facility is ready.

"I think there is a desperate need for different kinds of education outside the comprehensive high school," said board member Heather Bennett. "I think the success of charter schools in terms of enrollment proves that on some level this school is a risk worth taking."

Bennett also said she would like to see the district find other areas in which alternative programs like SPA would be beneficial.

"I don't think we should wait for a group of enthusiastic parents to come to us next time we want to create one of those models," Bennett said. "I would like to see us collectively identify other models that will work for kids and place them in our other comprehensive high schools."

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