Samuel S. Fels High School music teachers Barry Huber and Douglas Payne came of age in two very different educational environments.
Payne, a native New Yorker, studied at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, a program so renowned for molding the city’s brightest young stars that they made the Academy Award-winning movie Fame about it.
Huber, a Northeast Philly native, is a product of his home city’s oft-maligned public school system and attended the old Fels Junior High School, where time seemed to stand still for decades, according to the veteran educator.
At long last, a new Fels is finally breaking the cycle of stagnancy.
Last week, the school received administrative approval to open the Fels School of the Arts, which will offer performing and visual arts-intensive curricula to hundreds of talented young musicians, singers, dancers, actors and designers. When it opens in the fall, it will be the city’s fifth performing and fine arts school.
“It’s an exciting new development at a school that has been around a long time, but hasn’t had new initiatives,” said Huber, who completed ninth grade at the old Fels in 1962 before graduating from Olney High School three years later.
Payne graduated from the “Fame” school in 1974, six years before the film’s ensemble cast danced through the streets in New York’s Times Square district and catapulted the school into a cultural phenomenon.
“It’s like déjà vu, like going back,” he said of the forthcoming Fels program. “It’s like a dream come true.”
Principal Shawn McGuigan thinks of the program as a “school within a school.” Prospective students will have to apply and audition for up to 400 available spots in the arts school. Fels will host an open house from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. tonight for prospective students.
The plan calls for about 250 new students in the first year, with 50 to 100 current Fels students also gaining admission into the arts program.
The total campus enrollment, then, will increase from 1,370 to more than 1,600, which is still shy of its designed capacity of about 1,700 students.
Built in 2009, the state-of-the-art building and sprawling campus is at 5500 Langdon St. in the Oxford Circle/Summerdale section of the Northeast. Previously, Fels occupied a cramped, aging and antiquated site at Devereaux Avenue and Langdon Street.
The new building has a 900-seat auditorium with an elaborate sound system, as well as a “black box” theater with a couple hundred seats suitable for smaller productions and rehearsals. It has a 30-station music technology lab with programmable keyboards, Apple computers and sound mixing software. There’s a dance studio and a large inventory of musical instruments that get little if any practical use.
“This was part of the vision when I got here,” said McGuigan, who is in his second year as principal. “We went around the building and saw how it was being underutilized.”
Building the arts program was not the top priority, however. First, McGuigan’s administration had to throttle destructive elements at Fels, which had for years been on Pennsylvania’s list of persistently dangerous schools based on its relatively high volume of serious incidents.
Fels finally made it off the dubious list last fall. Student attendance increased from 80.8 percent in 2010-11 to 89.3 percent last year, while disciplinary suspensions plummeted from 622 to 342. There were 83 serious incidents in 2010-11, but only 50 last year.
Students seem to be sticking around longer, too. In 2010-11, 377 withdrew from classes, while just 71 did so last year.
“Students are now committed to going to class,” McGuigan said. “Student attendance has increased. Staff attendance has increased.”
On a sour note, standardized test scores remain far below citywide levels with just 14.2 percent of last year’s 11th-graders qualifying as “advanced” or “proficient” in math and 23.4 percent in reading.
But McGuigan hopes that the arts program will convince underachieving students to apply themselves academically too. There will be minimum academic standards for selection, but applicants will not be turned away merely due to middling grades.
Fels will join four other performing and fine arts schools: the 716-student Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School, the 520-student Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), the 427-student Kensington CAPA and the 558-student Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in the Far Northeast.
Fels’ lead counselor, Ray Realdine, was central in developing the written and video proposals that McGuigan submitted to the school district’s headquarters.
“If you look at the big picture, it’s about creating opportunities for all students, not just special admissions students,” Realdine said. “We have to keep challenging ourselves as well as the kids.”
There will be no physical barriers between the arts wing of the building and the traditional “comprehensive” section. But arts students will have their own class sections for core curriculum subjects as well as arts subjects.
They’ll work on a different schedule, too, with two 90-minute “block” periods programmed into each school day.
Faculty will grow, too. Huber, the vocal director, is expected to stay, as is Payne, the band director, along with theater director Andrea Rumble-Moore and visual art/set design instructor Peter Kelsey.
“Based on the numbers for next year, we’re going to look at bringing a dance teacher, a second instrument teacher and possibly a vocal teacher,” McGuigan said. “Then we have our teachers who will float over into the arts side of the building to teach core curriculum courses.”
The school will get some additional funding next year, but only because of the enrollment increase.
“The tone [from the administration] was, ‘If this is going to cost money, it’s not going to work. You need to make it work with what you have,’ ” Realdine said.
According to Huber and Payne, Fels will have plenty.
“The talent is incredible in this school,” Payne said. “My band students are excited. Now they’re serious about the music and about participating in the program, even the kids who used to mess around.”
Huber was scheduled to retire, but he postponed it when offered the opportunity to help build the arts program.
“For me, it’s a whole complete package here: State-of-the-art facilities and programs,” he said. “It’s something I always envisioned, what it would be like to teach in a school like that.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Web:
View an interview with Principal Shawn McGuigan and the inside of Fels’ music tech lab by logging onto www.youtube.com/user/kennywj13.