Back in 2011, the CASA story did not seem headed for a happy ending.
Enrollment was down 40 percent, school districts were withdrawing funding, and the arts-oriented high school had lost its program director.
But in seven short years, the plot has turned dramatically in favor of the Capital Area School for the Arts. In April, CASA received a five-year charter renewal in a school district that typically does not embrace charter schools.
“This is a huge validation of the past four years—all the kids we’ve reached, all the work we’re doing,” said Tim Wendling, CASA’s principal and CEO.
Wendling arrived at CASA in 2013 after it had just received its first charter, following a dozen years as a struggling magnet school. It’s one of just three brick-and-mortar charter schools in the Harrisburg school district, which must approve charter applications.
Applying for a charter is a painstaking process. The charter renewal for CASA contained 3,500 pages of documents, including information about curriculum, test scores, school design, operations and management and future plans. Visits and questions from district officials were part of the process, as well.
Why was CASA’s charter renewal approved?
“We are meeting and exceeding the goals that were set down in the first charter,” said Wendling. “[We’re] a premier provider of arts education in the city.”
CASA’s performance numbers bear this out. The school’s graduation rate is 94 percent, and student proficiency scores are strong—87 percent in biology, 93 percent in literature and 78 percent in algebra.
Those scores don’t necessarily arrive with the students, who are accepted to CASA based solely on an audition. The school has no information on students’ academics, attendance or behavioral history until after they are accepted to the school.
Once enrolled, CASA students often begin to thrive academically because they like going to school, Wendling said.
“We have 200 very different kids,” he said. “This place is perfect for them. They all fit in.”
The school’s six disciplines include creative writing, dance, film and video, music, theater and visual arts, providing many places for students to excel both in academics and arts.
Lois Lehrman Grass, long a supporter of the arts in Harrisburg, has been a part CASA since its inception in 2001, seeing the school grow from leasing empty rooms to its current state-of-the-art facility in Strawberry Square.
“Everybody who has a wonderful talent should be in a safe environment to be able to do what they do,” Grass said.
She said the creation of the school was not a “one-man band” but involved many people working together. The same could be said of the charter renewal, she said.
“It was more than a little nerve-wracking,” said Grass, a fixture at the school who is greeted affectionately by staff and students as she walks down the bustling hallways.
So, what’s in store for CASA now that it’s met this milestone?
“No big changes,” Wendling said. “We want to take this great thing we started and keep making it better.”
CASA plans to stay in Strawberry Square, in keeping with the school’s mission to use the city as a classroom, Wendling said.
Having the school in the city is mutually beneficial. Students and parents who don’t live in or frequent the city can “come and see Harrisburg’s true self,” he said. And Harrisburg residents get to see high school students in a different, creative light— filming, painting by the river, taking pictures in the downtown, etc.
“[CASA] is an art school that has the city of Harrisburg as our landscape,” said David Skerpon, a board member.
Besides maintaining its arts focus, CASA plans to continue building on its strong academic foundation, focusing on math and science, Wendling said. The school also wants to continue to foster its “fantastic collaboration” with the local arts community.
“We hope to see that we are even more integrated with the art scene than we are today,” Skerpon said.
That integration includes internships with Gamut Theatre Group and Open Stage of Harrisburg, film viewings at Midtown Cinema and art exhibitions at the Art Association of Harrisburg and the Susquehanna Art Museum.
One new thing is the College and Career Readiness Program, designed to connect and direct students to the opportunities available after graduation. Students will select “pathways” of study that take into account their interests and strengths.
Even though CASA has just received a new charter, there’s little time to rest, Wendling said. In about a year, administrators will begin contemplating the next charter renewal process. CASA, after all, can’t afford to take a break, as there’s always another group of talented students waiting in the wings.
“When you look at the 200 kids and try to picture them somewhere else, you can’t,” Wendling said. “This is the perfect school for them.”
Capital Area School for the Arts will hold its CASA Celebration Soiree, celebrating its charter renewal and honoring founders Lois Lehrman Grass and Dr. Glenn Zehner, on Sept. 20 at Whitaker Center, 222 Market St., Harrisburg. For more information about the event and about CASA, visit www.casa-arts.org.