Pupils and parents line up to get into Girard Academic Music Program

Javonah Brown, 10, sings "Castle in a Cloud" from "Les Misérables" for her vocal audition. About one-third of the 774 students were auditioning for the 66 open slots in the fifth-grade class.
Javonah Brown, 10, sings "Castle in a Cloud" from "Les Misérables" for her vocal audition. About one-third of the 774 students were auditioning for the 66 open slots in the fifth-grade class. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 07, 2013

Hundreds of anxious parents packed the auditorium as their children lined hallways and swarmed around teachers in classrooms, clutching sheet music and instruments.

The mission: Excel at a Saturday morning audition, wowing teachers to be selected for the hypercompetitive Girard Academic Music Program, one of the city's few magnet schools at the middle-school level and the only one specializing in music.

The South Philadelphia middle and high school also has a strong academic curriculum and always attracts many more applicants than it can accept. The program has room for only 66 students per grade, and hundreds of applicants each year try to get in to grades five and nine, the start of middle and high schools, when slots are most available.

A record 1,424 students applied this year, administrators said, but only 774 met academic criteria and were invited to audition.

Those students sat for a musical aptitude test and vocal audition, and those with instruments performed prepared pieces.

Roughly one-third of the 774 students were auditioning for the 66 open slots in the fifth-grade class.

Another third were auditioning for ninth-grade openings, which are few.

Another third were trying out for grade six, seven, eight, 10, or 11, where open spaces are usually minimal. Students were competing for spots on a wait list. This year, 225 students applied for entrance in those grades, which administrators said had no openings.

"I think it was an overwhelming amount of kids," said Kevina Chapolini, 49, after her daughter, Blake, emerged from her singing audition. "I was [nervous] because she was one of the first groups to go in, so when people were coming out, I was like: 'Where's my kid? Where's my kid?' "

But Blake, who auditioned for a slot in the ninth grade, came out beaming. She said she did well singing "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent and hoped to go to the school and become an actress.

Because she applied to study voice, Blake took the vocal audition only. Instrumental applicants also take vocal auditions, teacher Vincent Rutland said, more for evaluating placement if accepted than determining acceptance. Every student at the music school sings, the 52-year-old director of band programs said.

Rutland has learned over 13 years at the school always to expect a large applicant pool, as "we always have a strong interest."

Parents said they saw the school as not only a top choice but, in some cases, one of the only choices.

"It would be nice if this school could accept more students," said Dawn Willis, 49, who lamented what she called a lack of good school options. "For the amount of taxes I'm paying, I think we should have a much better school system."

Willis was waiting for her daughter, Paige, to finish her violin audition, for which they had prepared extensively. Paige, a fourth grader, spends about five hours a week on the strings, Willis said, including private lessons and in-school lessons at the private Catholic school she attends.

If Paige is accepted to GAMP, Willis knows she will have to provide transportation.

The district has said the school will not have busing next year, principal Jack Carr said, and the school continues to plead its case.

Parents said Saturday they would do whatever it took to get their children to the school if accepted, including forming car pools and figuring out public transportation plans.

And while the large number of applicants means the school should still be able to fill its slots, Carr said, it's tough to see outside factors reduce an applicant pool that could have been even larger.

"I'm very proud, but I'm also somewhat frustrated," said Carr, who founded the school in 1974.


Contact Jonathan Lai

at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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