Most people wouldn’t be surprised to learn that band classes at Roman Catholic High School were once taught in the not-so-modern attic of its primary building — constructed in 1890. Or that lessons in the visual arts were relegated to a converted garage nearby.
But what might signal a flagging arts program at other schools was only a temporary holdover at Roman Catholic High School. Here, a partnership with the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts (PAFA) and a new 40,000 sq. ft. arts facility are giving students new room to hone their skills and apply them in ways that foster community involvement and professional success.
“In many educational institutions, when budgets are tight, the arts are the first programs to be cut or eliminated,” says Father Joseph Bongard, President of Roman Catholic High School. “But here, our mission is to educate the whole person.”
Bongard, his faculty, and the student body have a lot of proof to back up their school’s proclaimed support for the arts. Last fall, Roman Catholic completed its $6 million Howard Center for the Arts, a building wholly dedicated to fostering student’s artistic endeavors with more focused, more modern classroom space.
“There are many areas of the Howard Center which are well-received: a spacious band room, three sound-proof music practice rooms, a digital media studio, and our versatile black-box theatre,” Bongard says. Other spaces, from computer-aided-design (CAD) stations and the digital photography and videography classroom, give students additional options for exploring their talents.
The construction of the Howard Center is the most recent testament to Roman Catholic’s deep-seated devotion to promoting art-centered lifestyles and careers for its students. This year, students grades 9–12 are also participating in the 25th year of the school’s PAFA-sponsored afterschool studio arts program, a multi-disciplinary series of college-level fine arts courses.
As part of the PAFA partnership, Roman Catholic High School students have the opportunity to study four studio art disciplines: Still Life, Oil Painting, Illustration, and Life Drawing — each under the supervision of PAFA-associated arts educators and professional artists. Students can choose to enroll in any or all of the classes offered, but must first apply and be accepted to the program. As of today, Roman Catholic students have a 100% acceptance rate.
While Roman Catholic has always held the arts in high esteem, art advocates at the school recognize it did not always have the materials or the technical insight to offer promising artists an honors-level arts curriculum. This understanding, as well as a desire to give back to the community, is what led 1969 alumnus Dan DiLella to pursue a partnership between Roman Catholic High School and PAFA in the early 1990s.
Roman Catholic High School students have the opportunity to study four studio art disciplines: Still Life, Oil Painting, Illustration, and Life Drawing — each under the supervision of PAFA-associated arts educators and professional artists
In 1994, his efforts were successful, launching the afterschool studio arts program with a pilot class of 12 Roman Catholic students. The program would eventually broaden to include students from dozens of public, charter, and parochial schools throughout Philadelphia, fulfilling DiLella’s dream of more meaningfully connecting aspiring artists to the resources and materials they need to flourish in their mediums.
Bongard notes that his school has also developed direct relationships with organizations including: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Barnes Foundation, Studio Incamminati, the Philly Pops, Kimmel Center, and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
“These relationships provide opportunities for our students to be exposed to a variety of the arts, to develop their own talents, and to grow in a greater appreciation of the fine and performing arts,” Bongard says.
With a 25-year commitment to its PAFA partnership and a four-phased, $25-million plan for long-term investment in the arts and other extra-curricular pursuits, Roman Catholic High School is taking the long view on what it means to engage its students, other schools, and the greater Philadelphia community into the city’s thriving art culture. Its combined programs are connecting professional artists to talented youth, who go on to become artistic leaders and teachers in their own right, and who return to PAFA and Roman Catholic to give back and continue the cycle.
Bongard strongly believes that this cycle promotes a different type of thinking, one that reinforces the mission of Roman Catholic, as well as of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“Artists teach us, by their craft, to see and experience the transcendent. Education in the fine and performing arts teach students about beauty — and beauty draws us to God.”