Hearing the pitter-patter of dancers’ feet, the harmonizing sounds of vocalists and seeing the clay covered hands of students in ceramic class are some of the activities going on during a normal school day.
“Living the experience,” says Principal Johnny Whaley, is what sets the Philadelphia School of Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) apart from other public high schools in the district. Performing is not the school’s focus, but rather academics and an introduction to college expectations.
“I’m always amazed at the fact that people don’t realize — and parents don’t realize — that we are essentially a college preparatory program with a focus on performance. People tend to think that [because of] the name of the school, the focus is on the art piece, but it’s really not. There are people in the district that don’t understand what we do,” Whaley said.
Jacqui Stallworth is the graphic design and commercial art teacher. Within her five years of teaching at CAPA, her most memorable experience is when alumni visit and share experiences of their college education. Jokingly she said that former students tell her that they teach classes.
“A couple of our kids say they’re actually bored in class [in college] because they knew how to do all the stuff the teacher was teaching [them]. I said, ‘Good, well I’m sorry you’re wasting your money, but I’m glad that I prepared you for that,’” Stallworth said. “That’s ultimately my goal, to make them ready to leave.”
According to the 2010 High School Student Survey Report conducted by the district, 81 percent of CAPA students “feel their classes are preparing them for future academic and/or job success.” More than half of the students felt they are “being challenged in their coursework” and 82 percent of students agree that there is “at least one teacher who does extra to support them.”
Buzz. The bell rings and students have three minutes to get to class. As lockers slam and sneakers screech into classrooms, Whaley genuinely interacts with students knowing them on a first-name basis.
On the second floor, the mixed choir class auditions for the Harvest Vocal Recital. Freshman vocal majors, Sylvester Felton and Ashley Catanzaro sing “No Air” by Jordin Sparks, a duet featuring Chris Brown, for their audition. Both say that their experience at CAPA is rewarding because the dynamics of peers and teachers allows them to express their individualism.
“I can be myself here, because if I went to Frankford, my neighborhood school, I would have to change myself to fit in, but here I can be [myself],” said Felton.
“I like this school so much because nobody judges you here. You can be so open with yourself and free. Nobody is harsh and judgmental, so it gives me a chance to express myself,” said Catanzaro.
With similar sentiments, the student survey reported that peer influence has an impact on students. Seventy-two percent of students agree that, “their friends are committed to working hard in school.”
Walking past the choir room, the flute players rehearse in the hallway. Here, upperclassman Danae Savage, Dionne McCrae, Shonna Washington and Kimberly Granato figure out the tempo for the five-four time signature of “Rhythm Dance” as freshman flautists prepare to play.
Freshman flautist Keyshawna Robinson said she enjoys time with friends at lunch, rehearsing during second period, English class and learning playing techniques from upperclassman, especially the dynamics of a song, “like how to play louder or softer,” said Robinson.
CAPA students can major in six areas: creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, vocal music or visual arts. Approximately 150 students have a major and minor, but teachers encourage students to manage audition major first. Instrumental music majors must read music, and vocalists learn to perform in Spanish and Italian. Some students learn to perform in five languages.
In preparation for the winter performance season, dancers, vocalists and instrumentalists are rehearsing for the nation’s oldest Thanksgiving parade, the annual Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade. Other performances include the Harvest Vocal Recital, Holiday Dance Concert, Winter Instrumental Music Concert, Winter Vocal Concert, CAPA Caravan, Second Year Actor’s Play, Student Choreography Show and the African-American History Program.
As part of the various extra-curricular programs available to students, CAPA offers sports, as well. Partnered with South Philadelphia High School, students can choose from basketball, cross-country, softball, tennis and volleyball teams. This year, the Girls’ Volleyball team advanced to the District 12 AA playoffs to contend for the Public League Championship.
The school also houses “United Writers and Artists,” a literary magazine staffed by CAPA students. Here, students design layouts, create artwork and publish original poems, fictional and non-fictional stories. Students can pick up a free copy almost every month. Creative writers also have opportunities to use their skills at The Painted Word, the school newspaper, and with the yearbook.
There is a high level of competition and demand to get into CAPA. Yearly, about 3,000 applicants will apply, 1,200 will audition and 185 will be accepted into the high school.
“I tell parents we offer what you call, the reality-based dream. The reality is that there are unfortunately a lot of starving artists. We have students that come to us thinking they’re going to be the next star on the stage or screen because they been that way at their middle schools. We use that passion they have for the arts to motivate their academic development,” Whaley said. “You’ve heard of scholar athletes — I have scholar artists.”