In 2003 the fledgling charter school for the arts opened in the former Laros factory on Bethlehem’s East Broad Street. The dream was to have a school that would offer a creative environment for students who sought a different way to learn. Today the school has 490 students with arts concentrations in dance, figure skating, instrumental music, theatre, visual art, vocal music and, next year, literary arts. The former factory space that the school was renting since its inception was windowless, cramped and lacked a connection with the community.

“Our philosophy is that the community is important to the educational experience of the students, “ stated Diane LaBelle, Executive Director of the school, during a recent tour of the new building under construction at 3rd and Polk Streets in Bethlehem’s SouthSide Arts District. “Here we are close to Touchstone Theatre, Godfrey Daniels, Banana Factory, SteelStacks, Steel Ice Center and dozens of restaurants.” LaBelle explained that like the old building the new building will not have a traditional cafeteria service. Students may earn privileges to go out into the community for lunch, a great opportunity for exploring.

By any standards, Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts has been a success. While 91% of the graduates go on to higher education only about 12% actually pursue arts fields at such colleges as Rhode Island School of Design, Boston Conservatory of Music and New York University. LaBelle was recently notified that the school has been nominated for consideration for Newsweek Magazine’s top 300 high schools in the United States! Under Pennsylvania law students from any school district in Pennsylvania may choose to attend any charter school in the state. All prospective students must pass an audition and meet academic standards. Students from 42 of the state’s 500 school districts are now attending the school, which will increase its capacity to 650 students with the new building.

LaBelle is known to the ArtsQuest family for her role as Director of the Banana Factory Arts Center from 1998 to 2003, before she left to assist in the development and implementation of the Goggle Works Arts Center in Reading. An architect by training, she has injected many ideas into the beautiful new school. She points out that EVERY CLASS ROOM in the building has natural light. The Theater, which seats 370, has an entrance on 3rd Street for members of the public who attend performances. The auditorium can be used in several configurations for different kinds of productions. In addition to dance studios with high ceilings and natural light, there is an informal commons room where students can relax between classes or for their lunch period. (There will be a “grab and go” food service in this area to replace the convenience of the WAWA next door to the current school.) Views of SteelStacks, City Hall, Central Moravian Church, South Mountain and Holy Infancy Church make this location a primer on Bethlehem history.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the building is the third floor exterior patio with adjacent classroom. The patio, with a west facing view of Third Street, is designed to support a garden or perhaps a physics experiment. Each year before the start of classes the faculty of the school will compete for use of the classroom and balcony for a course that requires interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts and other courses like biology, physics, mathematics, English or perhaps social studies. Just like the arts, the education here offers endless opportunities for creativity. The school will welcome students this August.