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Philly's Central High gets $10M gift for major expansion

The Philadelphia magnet school unveiled a $42 million public-private capital campaign that plans for a performing arts center and upgrades to academic and athletic spaces.

Joseph M. Field (right), 85, Central High School class of 192, speaks with architect Dan Kelley of MGA Partners, about a new performing arts center (foreground) to be built at the school thanks to a $10 million donation by Field and his wife Marie.  The building will be called the Joseph and Marie Field Performing Arts Center.
Joseph M. Field (right), 85, Central High School class of 192, speaks with architect Dan Kelley of MGA Partners, about a new performing arts center (foreground) to be built at the school thanks to a $10 million donation by Field and his wife Marie. The building will be called the Joseph and Marie Field Performing Arts Center.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Attending Central High School affected Joseph M. Field's life profoundly, but he never forgot that the public school that shaped him had one major shortcoming, even when he attended in the late 1940s: It lacked a proper performance space for its many promising musicians.

Powered by Field's $10 million gift, Central High School officials on Wednesday announced a $42 million, public-private capital campaign to improve and expand their campus. The centerpiece will be the Joseph and Marie Field Performing Arts Center, a 400-seat, state-of-the-art venue that will finally fill the gap Field first noticed in 1945.

Field has pledged what is believed to be the largest single gift in the history of Central, the second-oldest public school in the nation and the city's second largest school. The school is banking on its vast alumni network, 20,000 strong, to fund the bulk of the project at the site it has occupied since 1939.

The Philadelphia School District has also signed off on $8.1 million toward the project, which is slated for groundbreaking in January 2019, with completion scheduled for 2020. Donors would foot the remainder of the bill, with Field matching most contributions.

Field, whose Bala Cynwyd firm recently finalized a merger with CBS Radio, graduated from the elite magnet school in 1949.

Field's gift is "transformational," said Timothy McKenna, Central's president. (The school's principals are known as presidents.) The building at Ogontz and Olney Avenues is bursting at the seams, with more than 2,300 students in a school constructed for 1,800.

Planned is an expansion that would add not just the performing arts center, but also a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Innovation Center; a student commons; a digital media and technology center, and changes to the campus to bolster student safety and access.

Although its primary draw is its college prep curriculum, Central is also a hub for performers. More than 10 percent of the current freshman class of 660 play musical instruments, McKenna said; 41 percent of all students participate in performing arts through courses or extracurriculars.

"We don't recruit musicians," said McKenna. "They just come to us."

Dylan Lewis, a Central senior and president of the school's choir, has cherished her experience as a performer.

But, she said, "because of the way our auditorium is set up, you can't really hear us, especially when we play with the orchestra."

Lewis and others were buzzing Wednesday at the thought of a venue that will feature rehearsal rooms, a scene shop, and other bells and whistles performers can only dream about now.

That was Field's goal, he said: He wanted to assure that "future students at Central will have the benefit of learning, training and performing in a world-class" facility. Its facility ought to match its academics, he stressed.

Key to the project's completion will be the strength of the alumni network, challenged by officials in attendance to rise to the occasion to fund the ambitious campaign.

"It is now our responsibility to help future Central students to continue that wonderful experience, by building an expansion, and renovating the iconic building that is approaching 80 years old," said Charles Steinberg, a co-chair of the alumni capital campaign. "Central…offers to every child in Philadelphia, the opportunity to get the best college preparatory education in the city."

Campaigns like Central's are uncommon in the city's generally cash-strapped school system, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. acknowledged that while the district does and should devote much of its attention to its many struggling schools, it also has a responsibility to Central, as well.

"It's also the schools that are already doing quite well that need some attention," Hite said. The Central event, the superintendent noted, came amid a week of announcements about gifts to Philadelphia schools, from Philadelphia Eagle Lane Johnson pledging to donate the proceeds of his clothing line to the district to a gift from the Philadelphia School Partnership to expand a program supporting students entering union apprenticeship programs.

Mayor Kenney lavished praise on Central as what he called the public-school equivalent of his own alma mater, St. Joseph's Prep – perhaps Central is even better, he said, because it is coeducational while the Prep admits only boys.

"Every child in Philadelphia deserves a school like this," Kenney said of Central, adding that the forthcoming shift of the school system to local control will give Philadelphia a firmer hand in making that a reality.

Both the mayor and McKenna said that schools like Central are key to keeping families in the city. McKenna, who lives in South Philadelphia, said a neighbor recently moved to the suburbs when their children approached school age.

"That breaks my heart as an administrator and as a parent," said McKenna. But, he said, "these are the projects that our kids deserve and it's going to change the trajectory."