New use for old Bishop McDevitt school?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It is a stately old school on Market Street.

“It’s a fantastic structure,” gushed Lancaster attorney Richard Caplan. “It has enormous potential.”

But the old Bishop McDevitt High School has been vacant for three-and-a-half years.

“It’s a tragedy it’s been empty,” Caplan added.

Indeed, the once proud building is showing its age with thigh-high weeds, rusted metal, and broken windows visible from the outside. Caplan says inside there are at least three areas where the roof leaks and vandalism damage is easily spotted.

But Caplan sees great beauty and greater potential for the place. He’s the president of Arts to the Core, an academic curriculum that uses the arts to help students master core subjects. He’d like to turn the old high school into an arts-based charter K-8 elementary school. He’s convinced it’s the perfect plan in the perfect place.

“Particularly in urban centers such as Harrisburg that come out of poverty, come out of sensory deprivation, and need the help of the arts to find their full potential,” Caplan said Friday at a news conference on the front steps of the old school.

He says the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese will sell him the property for $1.6 million. He’s pledged to put at least another $1 million into renovations.

Larry and Ruth Cuschlag live directly across the street from the school and say they miss the students. They love Caplan’s idea.

“The building would be used,” Larry said. “It wouldn’t be setting there empty. The upkeep would be better. The vandalism probably would be kept down.”

But unless Larry and Ruth have votes on the Harrisburg School Board, and they don’t, their dream is a long way from reality. The board must sign off on the plan because it would ultimately steer tax dollars to pay for each student that attends the new charter. Caplan knows that’s not likely in a cash-strapped district like Harrisburg, but he says he’ll file the necessary paperwork next month.

“History suggests that over 90 percent of these applications are initially denied,” Caplan said, but he quickly added that more than 50 percent of those initial denials are reversed on appeal to the state Department of Education.

Caplan said if rejected, he will appeal the Harrisburg School Board denial. He’d prefer that the board see the value in an arts-based charter school and green light the project.

Caplan has already convinced John Brixius, a McDevitt teacher and former principal who began working in the old building in 1962.

“I’d like to see the building used for education,” Brixius said. “That’s the main thing. And the second thing is that the building would be cared for.”

Caplan said he will spend his own money to buy and fix the building and spend lots of time and energy attempting to get the necessary approvals. He hopes to reopen the doors to students in September 2017.

“I’m doing this because I love the kids and I want to see them prosper,” he said.

In a statement to abc27, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said he supports the plan. “It will have an arts-based curriculum and is a great option for students in  our community. ”


On the Web: Arts to the Core Charter School

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