Northeast Times

Rush Arts grads take the stage

(from the left) Prin­cip­al Jes­sica Brown, Re­becca Slut­sky, 18, Car­ol Pike, 19, and Veron­ica Han­ley in front of the first gradu­at­ing class of Arts Academy at Ben­jamin Rush mur­al in lib­rary of the school, Wed­nes­day, June 13, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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Jes­sica Brown was hired in Feb­ru­ary 2008 as the first prin­cip­al at the Arts Academy at Ben­jamin Rush, and one night last week was very spe­cial for her.

On June 12, the school’s first class gradu­ated.

In four years, the prin­cip­al grew very close to the 101 young men and wo­men who made up the in­aug­ur­al gradu­at­ing class.

“I’ll nev­er know a class as in­tim­ately as this one. It’s a nice re­la­tion­ship to have. I think I know their blood type,” she said.

The school is loc­ated in Mill­brook at 11081 Knights Road in the former Ben­jamin Rush Middle School, which op­er­ated from 1968 to 2006. In its later years, Rush be­came less of a neigh­bor­hood school since most stu­dents were bused in from oth­er areas.

Brown over­saw a $25 mil­lion renov­a­tion of the build­ing, and the school opened in Septem­ber 2008 with fresh­men.

New classes of fresh­men were ad­ded each of the last three years, and there were 502 in all dur­ing the most re­cent school year. En­roll­ment is pro­jec­ted to reach 600 in fu­ture years.

Among the cri­ter­ia for gain­ing ad­mit­tance to the school is an au­di­tion. Once en­rolled, stu­dents can ma­jor in one of five areas — dance, vo­cal, theat­er, in­stru­ment­al mu­sic and visu­al arts.

Of course, they also take tra­di­tion­al sub­jects such as math, Eng­lish, his­tory, sci­ence and for­eign lan­guage.

Brown said one of the early chal­lenges was find­ing the right fac­ulty mem­bers. The staff is ac­cess­ible to stu­dents, she be­lieves. There are hon­ors and ad­vance-place­ment courses, and the school has won a vari­ety of awards.

“It’s hard to build an arts school from scratch, but it’s ex­ceeded my ex­pect­a­tions,” she said. “It’s a de­sir­able school. The repu­ta­tion of the school is strong. We have a wait­ing list.”

In all, of the 101 gradu­ates, 87 will go to col­lege and 14 will en­list in the mil­it­ary or enter the work­force.

Car­ol Pike and Re­becca Slut­sky are two of the stu­dents who spent four years at the school, known to most as “Rush Arts.”

Car­ol, of Mor­rell Park, at­ten­ded John Han­cock Ele­ment­ary School be­fore ar­riv­ing at Rush. Re­becca, of Ta­cony, came from New Found­a­tions Charter School.

Look­ing back, they re­call au­di­tion­ing at the ad­ja­cent Aloysi­us L. Fitzpatrick Ele­ment­ary School be­cause Rush was be­ing ren­ov­ated.

Car­ol ma­jored in vo­cal and had the hon­or of singing The Star-Spangled Ban­ner at the June 12 gradu­ation ce­re­mony at the In­de­pend­ence Sea­port Mu­seum. She suc­cess­fully au­di­tioned to be­come an all-city vo­cal­ist.

“Miss (Su­z­anne) Spen­cer helped me break out of my shell. I did ten so­los in our show my ju­ni­or year,” she said.

Re­becca ma­jored in dance and cred­its Den­ise Mas­ters with teach­ing them all kinds of dances.

“It was a learn­ing ex­per­i­ence for us, and our show in April turned out really good,” she said.

The grads re­mem­ber the early days.

“All my oth­er friends were go­ing to schools that were fully de­veloped,” Re­becca said. “This was brand new. We were the first class. There were no up­per­class­men. It was just us. We only needed to use half of the build­ing.”

Re­becca would go on to join the prom com­mit­tee and the year­book staff and helped out with au­di­tions, open houses, ment­or­ing and ninth-grade ori­ent­a­tion.

“I’d ask Miss Brown, ‘Do you need me to do any­thing?’ ” she said. “I’ve been so in­volved with the school. The school has been my life. I loved be­ing here. It made my high school ex­per­i­ence amaz­ing.”

Re­becca, who earned mostly B’s, will at­tend Blooms­burg Uni­versity and ma­jor in early child­hood edu­ca­tion. She might join the school’s dance en­semble.

“I’d rather do it as a hobby, something to es­cape to, rather than a ca­reer,” she said.

Car­ol, who re­cently earned hon­ors and re­ceived a Cit­izen­ship/Most Im­proved award at gradu­ation, had dreams of com­pet­ing on Amer­ic­an Idol and be­com­ing fam­ous. She will en­roll at Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia’s North­east Re­gion­al Cen­ter in Janu­ary. She’ll even­tu­ally trans­fer to a four-year school, per­haps Lock Haven, to study veter­in­ary medi­cine.

“Every­body be­came close so quick. It was easy to bond with people,” she said of her fresh­man year. “I met some good people, in­clud­ing my boy­friend.”

Brown em­powered the stu­dents in many ways. They got to choose the school mas­cot (Knights), col­ors (purple and black), year­book name (Port­fo­lio) and wheth­er there should be a uni­form policy (no). Stu­dents, though, must dress in ap­pro­pri­ate at­tire.

There’s also a 21-mem­ber Rush Coun­cil, made up of fresh­men through seni­ors, that meets on all sub­jects re­lated to the school. The group has even dis­cussed form­ing an alumni com­mit­tee.

Next year, there will be six varsity sports — girls vol­ley­ball, boys and girls bas­ket­ball, base­ball, soft­ball and girls soc­cer.

The seni­ors cre­ated a mur­al in the lib­rary, with an “ICE­PAC” theme. The mur­al shows the school’s mot­tos of ima­gin­a­tion, com­mu­nic­a­tion, em­pathy, per­spect­ive, ana­lys­is and com­mit­ment.

Car­ol de­scribed the cur­riculum as “chal­len­ging” and the at­mo­sphere as con­du­cive to learn­ing.

“The classrooms are quiet, and every­body re­spects each oth­er and the teach­ers,” she said.

About 65 per­cent of the stu­dents are girls, and some 60 per­cent to 70 per­cent of the stu­dent body comes from the North­east.

The girls hope and ex­pect the cur­rent and fu­ture stu­dents to have the same pos­it­ive ex­per­i­ence as they did at Rush Arts.

“We’re like a fam­ily. Every­one knows each oth­er’s name,” Re­becca said. ••

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You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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