Monday, April 21, 2014
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A school where everyone performs

Eighth grader Alem Ballard in a class for orchestra majors. In sixth grade, each student picks an area of the arts on which to focus. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Eighth grader Alem Ballard in a class for orchestra majors. In sixth grade, each student picks an area of the arts on which to focus. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Eighth grader Alem Ballard in a class for orchestra majors. In sixth grade, each student picks an area of the arts on which to focus. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer) Gallery: A school where everyone performs

Give a 6-year-old a violin. Or ballet shoes. Or a chance to act on stage. And what happens?

At Philadelphia's Performing Arts Charter School, all the kindergartners get to perform. In fact, they have to - with weekly violin, ballet, and singing lessons.

It's the beginning of their voyage to discover their strengths.

"Parents tell their kids they can do anything," said Angela Corosanite, the school's founder and chief executive officer. "We give them the tools to actually do it."

Whether engaging in the arts early on fosters achievement in more academic areas is a point of study and debate.

What's clearer is that this charter school makes a difference for many of its students, who are selected by lottery from the city's melting pot of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. About half come from low-income families.

"Being on stage as a little girl definitely made me more extroverted," said Angela Gray, a seventh grader from Southwest Philadelphia. "I used to be a shy little girl. Not anymore."

Gray, talkative and confident, wants to be a lawyer and has chosen creative writing as her "major." All students in sixth grade select an area of focus, in addition to the usual lessons in math, social studies, science, and reading.

One recent day, fifth grader Ricky Baccare, his hair gelled, was an impressive stage presence.

Animated and articulate, he talked of his love of singing. He said he would major in vocal next year, following the lead of his father, Rick Baccare, who has performed in the area for almost 20 years.

"It's amazing to see a child this little command an entire theater," Corosanite said.

The K-8 charter school on Broad Street in South Philadelphia has met the academic benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind law five years running. It has operated so smoothly that in 2009, the School District of Philadelphia awarded it a five-year operating charter without conditions - the only one of 10 charters then up for renewal to get such a deal.

Corosanite opened the school in 2000 in the belief that every child has artistic intelligence that needs fostering.

A 1971 graduate of South Philadelphia High, she recalls an era when Philadelphia was a breeding ground for the arts. "But the world changed, education was cut, and the arts suffered the burden."

The arts, she believes, put children on the same footing.

"You would not be able to tell the daughter of a doctor apart from a child who lives in a homeless shelter," Corosanite said. "And we have both."

Walking into the school, one is struck by its light and openness. The walls are painted bright yellow and covered with children's artwork. The floors are carpeted, and the classrooms are set up with tables instead of desks.

Last week, in a classroom near the entrance, about 20 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, mostly girls, stood en pointe before a wall of mirrors as their teacher, Alexei Charov, a member of Pennsylvania Ballet's Corps de Ballet, walked around correcting their positions.

In the next room, a dozen student musicians - sixth graders who started out in kindergarten on violin - played Antonio Vivaldi's "Spring" from The Four Seasons on a variety of stringed instruments.

And in the balcony above, the vocal majors practiced Andrea Bocelli's "Time to Say Goodbye" for the eighth-grade graduation.

Though these students may excel in the arts, many still struggle with the basics.

On the most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, about 37 percent of fifth graders scored below grade level in math and 40 percent did so in reading. Still, they did better than fifth graders districtwide.

But with the confidence and skills they developed, the school's graduating eighth graders are being sought out. Ten of the 50 students have been awarded scholarships to attend private schools.

Sarah Lowry, who was adopted as an infant from South America, will attend the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Conn., on a $37,500 scholarship in the fall. Her brother, Christopher, also adopted from South America, will go to the School at Church Farm, a boarding school in Exton, on a $30,000 scholarship.

Cody Wise, 13, will spend his summer recording music. The South Philadelphia native came to Performing Arts in kindergarten with no musical background. Over the winter, he played two roles in The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway. He also signed a recording contract with Interscope Records, which owns the label of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas.

The rest will go on to city high schools, including some that focus on the arts.

Corosanite said her ultimate goal for her students is to show them that there is so much more beyond Philadelphia.

"I want to give them the world," she said. "They deserve nothing less."


Contact staff writer Elisa Lala at 215-854-5626 elala@phillynews.com.

Elisa Lala Inquirer Staff Writer
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