Seeking ‘FAME’ at Samuel Fels

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 d&ea­cute;jà 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

On the Web: 

View an in­ter­view with Prin­cip­al Shawn McGuigan and the in­side of Fels’ mu­sic tech lab by log­ging onto­­wj13.

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