CAPA team tells White House: We're 'ready to thrive'

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Pittsburgh CAPA senior Alec Chapman sat at the piano, running his fingers through a melody and talking about how great his school is. Fellow senior David Becinski trained a camera lens on the pianist, while the latter noted that music theory is a combination of art and math. That's the kind of integrated education CAPA provides, he continued, getting students ready for college, ready for life and "ready to thrive."

The words were his own except for the last three. "Ready to thrive" is the theme chosen by a dozen CAPA senior writing majors for the school's video entry for the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. President Barack Obama will deliver this year's commencement speech at the winning school.

Five other high schools nationwide also were invited to submit videos explaining how they prepare students for the future. To level the playing field, each school was provided with same equipment, and the White House tapped Viacom to send professional mentors to help.

The winner will be chosen by Mr. Obama and through online voting.


As it happened, the CAPA writing class was fresh off a nine-week course on TV writing.

"We brainstormed ways to show how an arts program gives us other skills, too," said writing major Leah Friedman.

She said the story line will include dedicated teachers, a social environment of acceptance and the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund, all of which make a great springboard for the next phase of life.

"CAPA helped me put my life in the right direction," said senior Shaqui Scott, whose interview would be taped later in the day. "There were gangs and fights at my other schools and I hated being there. I was ready to quit. When I got into CAPA in 10th grade, it was a whole different world. People are here because they want to be."

In all, 10 hours of footage was shot Wednesday throughout CAPA's Downtown building as students raced to complete their entry in accordance with the rules.

All day long, under the direction of their teachers, choral voices rang out, dancers twirled, artists painted, orchestral music swelled, literature students discussed passages and producers checked their clipboards while the cameras rolled.

Writers were nearby to prompt subjects on their message, and advance teams readied the next classroom for its close-up. Shepherding the project was Mara Cregan, literary arts coordinator and lead teacher on the White House project.

By 5 p.m., CAPA principal Melissa Pearlman said it had been a long day but worth every minute.

"We're all exhausted, but it was great," she said.

Today, the students will edit the raw footage into a three-minute video. Their plan is for a montage of CAPA activity with a soundtrack of interviews and performances. The finished product will go to MTV this evening for producers to examine.

All the entries will be posted next week at for the public to view and rank. Tentative voting dates are April 21-29. Mr. Obama then will choose the winning school from the top three finalists.

Mentor Tony Anderson from BET, a Viacom company, was onsite Wednesday offering advice, but he said the students made all the decisions and did the work themselves. Also helping out was videographer Noland Jenkins, a student at LaRoche College.

If the outcome rests solely on creative energy, cohesive message, talent and enthusiasm, CAPA will be tough to beat. But Mr. Anderson emphasized that it takes votes to win.

"The Pittsburgh community has to come out and vote for these young men and women, or they won't win no matter how great a job they do," he said.

Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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