Walking through the new Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts building, school Executive Director Diane LaBelle said it was like moving from a cave to the Taj Mahal.
“We’ve literally gone from night to day with this building,” LaBelle said.
Tuesday morning 580 Charter Arts students will arrive at 312 E. Third St. for their first day of school in the new four-story, $26 million building on South Side Bethlehem.
They will be greeted by light-filled classrooms, a major contrast from their former school in a converted, windowless warehouse at 675 E. Broad St., LaBelle said. It’s the realization of a dream that began more than five years ago, she said.
The school community celebrated the new school with a ribbon-cutting and tour Thursday afternoon, as construction crews worked to put finishing touches on the building. The school year was slated to start Monday but the first day of school was postponed to Tuesday earlier this summer.
The state-of-the-art high school will support the talents of a new generation of artists, said Mario Acerra, the Charter Arts school board president. It’s fitting that the new school is in the middle of Bethlehem’s arts, cultural and entertainment district, many said.
“We wanted a building that would enliven and enrich the neighborhood,” Acerra said.
The school plans to use the South Side community as a learning resource for students, visiting places like ArtsQuest, the Banana Factory, PBS39, Touchstone Theater, Godfrey Daniels and neighboring colleges.
Juniors and seniors will be able to leave school and visits neighborhood restaurant to grab lunch.
“South Bethlehem is the ideal location for our school,” LaBelle said.
The new building is double the size of the old school and better lends itself to the arts education the school is known for offering, she said. It’s also environmentally friendly with LEED Gold status, LaBelle said.
“The whole idea of this building was getting this school to sustainability,” she said.
The school’s rent payment, which rose 3.6 percent annually, will be replaced with a stable mortgage payment and steady energy costs. Any money left over can be invested into educational programming, LaBelle said.
The school’s been funded through a $6 million capital campaign, $4.8 million in state grant funding, a $2 million alternative clean energy loan and the mortgage.
The larger space will allow Charter Arts to grow its enrollment from 480 last year to a max of 650 students down the line. The school attracts students from 12 counties and 45 school districts across Pennsylvania.
With the influx of new students, Charter Arts isn’t just growing the size of its major programs. It plans to expand offerings, adding literary arts this school year and media arts the following year.
Students will begin their day in the Commons Cafe, a light filled eating and performance space on the first floor of the school. LaBelle envisions the space being heavily trafficked by students and utilize for a multitude of purposes.
Many of the charter students found the traditional public school cafeteria an unpleasant place where they faced bullying, she said. The Commons Cafe turns that on its head.
Each floor of the school, is devoted to a mix of major program space and academic classrooms.
The school features 21 additional classrooms, dedicated space for all of the majors, a green roof, a black box theater and 368 seat performance theater.
The old school’s black box theater only sat 150 people, making it inadequate for hosting all those looking to attend the school’s 90 annual performances and events.
Lighting and curtains were being installed in the state-of-the-art theater Thursday afternoon.
LaBelle pointed out that the lower level pit can be used for seating, placing a stage or for an orchestra. And the catwalk system is safer for students in the technical theater program.
“It’s flexible space,” she said.
If there’s a guest artist in the theater or several other performance spaces in the building, the school is technologically equipped to broadcast the performance to any of the classrooms. Classrooms are designed with cross collaboration in mind across majors and core subjects, LaBelle said.
The school now features things it once lacked, like practice spaces, but it also strives to hold on to features from the former building, like its bustling hallways.
Hallways have been designed to incorporate practice spaces and art displays with areas for student critiques.
“We didn’t want to lose that energy our school had,” LaBelle explained.
Charter Arts opened in 2003 in its Broad Street location. Charter schools are privately operated public schools, funded by tuition payments from students’ home school districts.