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. ••EndFragment