Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Up or Down? School Board to vote on new arts charter school at next meeting

The former building for Bishop McDevitt High School has sat vacant since 2012.

The former building for Bishop McDevitt High School has sat vacant since 2012.

The former home of Bishop McDevitt High School may become an arts-centered charter school, pending a vote by the Harrisburg school board.

On Feb. 21, the board is slated to decide whether to grant a charter to the newly formed Arts to the Core Charter School. The school incorporates music, dance, visual arts and theater into teaching core curriculum to kindergarten through eighth-grade students, said Richard Caplan, president of Arts to the Core.

“[The arts are] an attraction for kids going to school,” he said. “The arts cater to a lot of different learning pathways. Some kids learn better by physically doing things.”

If approved, Arts to the Core will open in September for the 2017-18 school year. More than 500 children from the Harrisburg School District have pre-enrolled. The school would accept 300 students from a lottery system to fill the first kindergarten through fourth grade classes, he said.

Students do not need to demonstrate artistic ability to attend the school.

“We essentially write off their talents if we don’t try to encourage them,” said Caplan, whose academic background is in the arts.

A Lancaster-based attorney, Caplan pursued music degrees before receiving his law degree from New York University. He said he “grew up in a family of educators” and has served for 10 years on public school boards in Lancaster County.

Caplan modeled the Arts to the Core school after the North Carolina Arts Council’s A+ charter school program. He said this approach is successful with inner-city children.

“The teachers find it much more exciting to teach because it’s more creative for them,” he said. “The parents love it because the kids want to go to school instead of being coerced to go to school.”

Jim Thompson, vice president of the school board, said he supports the Arts to the Core school and the arts-centered approach.

“I think it’s a good idea. I’ll ask them if they’ll let me come in and draw,” said Thompson, an architect. “To me, having an arts charter school as a feeder program to CASA makes a lot of sense.”

He said the community has reacted positively, most saying that it will be a good use of the iconic, 115,000-square-foot building at 2200 Market St. The building has sat vacant since 2012 and has been subject to vandalism since the private Catholic school relocated to Lower Paxton Township.

“I’m sensitive to community input,” he said, adding that he would not approve the charter just because it would put the property back into use.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse also supports the Arts to the Core school, saying that the school would encourage young families to stay in or move to Harrisburg.

“There’s probably no more important issue in terms of Harrisburg’s recovery,” Papenfuse said.

An increase in population, he said, is vital to re-energizing the city and boosting the tax base.

“We have seen growth among young professionals in various sectors,” he said. “A lot of times, young people will move to the city, enjoy city living and all that it has to offer, but, when it comes time for children to become school age, they have concerns.”

Students would attend the nonprofit school for free. The district would pick up the tab, at an estimated $1 million per 60 students. The school could apply for state and federal funds, as well. As a nonprofit, the school also could accept public donations.

Laws around charter schools restrict the school board from considering cost when voting on the proposal.

“Theoretically, [the district] should save that million dollars by not educating those children,” Caplan said.

Superintendent Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, citing legal restrictions, declined to comment on the charter school.

Caplan brought the idea to the school board last November after a difficult search for urban school buildings in York, Lancaster and Chester counties led him to the former Bishop McDevitt building.

The building, built in 1930, needs renovations, including a new boiler, a security system and accessibility updates per the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said. This construction will take four to six months and cost more than $2 million, an expense Caplan said he will pay out of pocket.

Arts to the Core will complete the purchase of the school from the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese contingent on the charter’s approval from the school board, he said. If the board approves the charter, Caplan said he will move ahead with renovations and hiring staff. He said 12 people have expressed interest in heading the school. 

For more information about the Arts to the Core Charter School, please visit the Facebook page.

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