In 1979, the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts opened its doors in Homewood with just 35 students who attended the school on a part-time basis. Thirty years later, CAPA now sits in the heart of the cultural district with more than 900 students in grades 6-12.
But CAPA’s true heart doesn’t come from its gleaming jewel of a building overlooking the Allegheny River. CAPA’s life comes from the spirit of its students; and the teachers and administrators who cultivate their talent and prepare them to enter the “real world.”
“If parents are interested in the study of an arts program as more than just a hobby, this is the right place. We want our students to use their art to send a message. They also have to be life long patrons of the arts,” said CAPA Principal Melissa Pearlman. “With that dedication does come a longer school day and a more rigorous academic environment. They actually have teachers who are professional artists. It’s important that they see their livelihood can be made that way.”
CAPA students are given the chance to pursue their passion in theatre, dance, literary arts, visual arts, vocal music, or instrumental music. They spend the first half of their school day studying academic subjects and the second part of their day is dedicated to their arts concentration.
While CAPA has long been noted as the Pittsburgh hub for producing professional artists, the school has also developed positive academic reputation. CAPA boasts a 99 percent graduation rate and a far lower achievement gap between Black and White students than other schools in the district.
“We have kids who come back and tell us, ‘other high schools aren’t like this.’ We have conversations all the time with African-American students about the achievement gap, and they don’t understand it,” Pearlman said. “We teach them that they might face adversity, but it’s not going to stop them. They don’t have the option to opt out.”
A trip through the halls of CAPA really does bring to life images from the musical FAME about a New York City Performing Arts High School. As the students practice their talents in the school’s many studios or dance down the hallways, they show the pride they take in honing their abilities.
“You learn so many different techniques so you get to find out what you do best. Your friends get to see you gradually become a better dancer,” said Felecia McFarlane, a senior student who has reached CAPA’s highest level in the dance program. “As a level five, you have to uphold a certain standard.”
Interdisciplinary arts are essential to CAPA’s curriculum. There’s room for students of all majors to take part in the yearly school musical, and while the dance majors are choreographing pieces to go with a performance by the vocal majors, the vocal majors are learning to expand their talent into foreign languages.
“Everyone works together (on the musical). Our parents don’t do it. We do everything ourselves. For example, we use the visual arts majors for the sets,” said Shanda Snyder, a musical theatre major. “I really like experimenting with a lot of the other performing arts, but I chose musical theatre as my major.”
“We’re learning to sing ‘Joyful, Joyful’ in German. We’re also preparing for juries and you’re required to sing a song in a different language,” said Sheryl Sesay. “The people who get the top scores get an honors recital and I’ve had one every year.”
Whether it’s an orchestra, dance ensemble, or musical theatre performance, the list of yearly CAPA shows is endless. But the school’s events aren’t only devoted to performing arts majors, the creative arts majors have the chance to have their work showcased as well.
“Our end of the year show is like a writing release party,” said Teireik Williams, a literary arts major. “One thing I personally like is they don’t just help us while we’re in school. They also help us prepare professionally by doing a lot of off campus collaborations around the city.”
Although CAPA does offer a few sports teams, students wishing to pursue athletics may do so at their home school. While some students might find it hard to transition from a full day of academic and arts education into athletic activities at a different school in the evening, many CAPA students find it easy to balance.
“It can be hard sometimes to get from one school to another. I think since we’ve been here for so many years, it’s always been a part of our lives and so has art so it’s easy to transition, said Amber Key, a senior CAPA student who also attended the city’s creative and performing arts middle school and runs on Westinghouse’s track team with her younger sister.
The challenge of finding a balance between academics, an arts education, and extracurricular activities doesn’t seem to faze most of the students at CAPA. Their diverse scholastic experience also mirrors the culturally and geographically diverse students they interact with every day.
“I learned to work with other people. I didn’t go to (the middle school) and I had to make new friends,” said Davonne Bonneau, an instrumental major. “I adjusted easily to the schedule really quick. It wasn’t a hard process to get along with, just the opposite. To be at a school like this made me really comfortable.”