Thinking big, acting boldly at Central High

What began as a paint-the-walls project is a new $4.5 million library.

By Martha Woodall

Inquirer Staff Writer

Tue, May 24, 2005


Nearly five years ago, Central High School's alumni set out to raise $100,000 to give the school's Barnwell Library fresh paint, carpeting and furniture. A few alumni, though, had grander dreams.



This afternoon, alumni and school officials will unveil what they call their "wow library" - a new communications, research and media facility that Apple Computer Inc. has named a national demonstration site for school-library technology. Central graduates picked up the project's $4.5 million tab. "The alumni did it all - not the school district," marveled Ellen Rosen, a library assistant in the new Barnwell Library. "I think that's what's incredible... . So many people are attached to their colleges. These people are attached to their high school."


Colleges and private schools are accustomed to ambitious fund-raising, but officials say the capital campaign by Central alumni may be unprecedented for a public school in this area. "In my memory, it's probably the first time a private group has really taken the bull by the horns," said Sheldon S. Pavel, who has been president of the school at Ogontz and Olney Avenues since 1984. "My thoughts are, if you are going to be able to truly make a difference in the educational process in any urban center, that's going to take substantial private dollars in conjunction with public dollars," said Richard E. Prinz, president of Central's alumni association.


Prinz, a 1959 Central grad, said Boston Latin, the nation's oldest public school, was a fund-raising pioneer. Richard Napolitano, a vice president at the Boston Latin School Association in Boston, said that group recently amassed $55 million for a library, scholarships and other projects. "Private support for public education is an important thing for us," he said.


Central, which was founded in 1836 to provide an education comparable to that of private academies, is the second-oldest public high school in the country. A magnet school, it enrolls 2,300 students. Prinz credits Bernard Spain, a 1952 Central grad, with spurring alumni to go beyond the initial plan to raise $100,000 to spruce up the library. The former chief executive officer of Dollar Express and Spain's Cards & Gifts chain, Prinz made a sizable contribution. He cochaired the campaign with William M. King, a physician who graduated in 1945 and who also made a major gift.


Architect Elliot Rothschild, who managed the library project, said alumni wanted "the best secondary-school library in the country." Rothschild, of the city architectural firm Bower Lewis Thrower, said he aimed to create an inviting place that would respect the building's original 1939 Art Deco style and offer the latest technology. In addition, Rothschild said, Harvey Steinberg, a 1958 grad who chaired the construction committee, told him: " 'I want a library where, when you come into it, you drop your socks and say, wow!' "


Plans called for gutting the huge, old library and reconfiguring the space by adding balconies and levels.  Today's grand opening will give visitors the first glimpse of what is being called the new Barnwell Library in the Dr. William M. King Communications, Media and Research Center. The project includes a staff lounge, a home for Central's extensive archives, and the Bernard Spain Conference Center. The library also will be a technology showplace that will be featured during the National Educational Computing Conference in the city next month.


Vincent DeTolla, who heads the district's educational technology group, said Apple Computer formed a partnership with the district and alumni to help outfit the facility. Tina Weinraub, Central's "cybrarian," said the school would try a new electronic checkout system. Staff will be able to inventory books instantly with handheld scanners. And alumni are paying subscriptions for several research databases. "It's the premier place to work in Philadelphia as a librarian," Weinraub said. "The library will be a portal to all the knowledge that's out there."


The school's alumni are not finished fund-raising yet. Prinz said the group is trying to raise $7.5 million to develop a performing arts center, refurbish Central's unused planetarium, buy science equipment, increase college aid, and boost the endowment.  


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or


 Central High's New Library

Dr. William M. King Communications, Media and Research Center is a $4.5 million facility funded by alumni. It features:


37,000 volumes.

70 Apple wireless laptops.

70 Apple desktop computers.

9 printers/copiers.

Private room for college interviews and catalogues.

Alumni archives room with high-density storage.

Bernard Spain Conference Center, which can be configured into one, two, three or four rooms seating 150, electronic whiteboard, professional sound system, and videoconferencing facility.

Source: The Associated Alumni of the Central High School of Philadelphia


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