Meet Lionel Phoenix McCulloch, a PALCS senior who was named second place high school winner in the Philadelphia Young Playwright’s competition for 2018. Lionel does over six shows each year as an actor, director or designer. As an avid theater lover and practitioner, “this wasn’t Lionel’s first play, but it was the first one he’d entered in this competition”, says his mom, Aileen.

When Lionel was in first grade, he no longer wanted to go to the “mean place,” where he was often punished for being bored in school and completing his work faster than the other students in his class. So he went to his mom and asked if he could be homeschooled. After being told that homeschooling was not a great option (because his mom was already busy with her touring theater company,) Lionel set out to explore his options – as a 1st grader!

A week later, Lionel came back to his mom and said, “Mom, I think I’ve solved your problem.” His mom had told him that she was “too busy to come up with curriculum,” so the first grader went online, did his research on cyber schools and homeschooling options, and presented the idea to his mother. Lionel began his online educational journey in 2nd grade. “He began barreling through his school at his own pace, completing high school Math and English classes while still in middle school,” his mom adds.

After hearing about PA Leadership Charter School’s CPFA Program in middle school, Lionel decided to switch schools so he could attend the blended program, taking online core classes and on-site electives in fine arts. Lionel currently lives in West Chester during the week, so he can attend the Center for Performing and Fine Arts (CPFA) Program, and then spends his weekends in Morgantown, where he grew up.

Lionel’s brother, Tiernan, now also attends PALCS CPFA. Arts talent runs in the family, as Tiernan is a fine artist exploring fine arts and music who has won many art awards for his work since he was a little boy.

In 8th grade, Lionel was described as precocious by one of his teachers at CPFA. “I liked being described as precocious,” Lionel adds, “because that’s what always gets me into trouble, but it’s [also] what makes me always want to learn more.” Not only does Lionel love the arts, he also has a passion for learning. His mom adds that “PALCS has made it possible for Lionel to learn at his own pace, and explore what he wants to explore” – like electronics, science, theater, and the arts.

Quantum Suicide, the play Lionel wrote for the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, was created and submitted in just three days. The play is about a boy whose twin brother has died, and in an effort to find some living part of his brother to hold on to, the boy explores the theory of quantum suicide. The play explores some quantum physics ideas that Lionel was interested in when the play competition deadline was looming, so he tied the science together with the idea that “love conquers all,” and created the play.

Lionel explains, “It’s hard to imagine my life without theater…I expect it will always be a part of my life in some way.” Lionel has been acting since he was four. He has worked with the Vagabond Acting Troupe for thirteen years, and more recently, with the Vagabond Performing Arts Academy at Steel River Playhouse as a designer, actor, and teacher. “I love working with kids doing theater, so I hope that at least for the near future I get to keep doing that,” Lionel adds. He also has done a lot of shows at The Baldwin School (an all-girl school) to help them out when they need male actors.

Upcoming in his schedule, Lionel will appear this month as the title role of Sweeney Todd in the murderous musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. The performance is part of the young professionals training program through the Vagabond Performing Arts Academy at Steel River Playhouse. Performances will be presented on October 26 at 7 p.m. and October 27 at 2 p.m and 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at

Lionel was recently inducted into CPFA’s Thespian Society, is also a member of the National Arts Honor Society, and is a CAPPIES student critic in the arts. He was nominated as Outstanding 11th Grade Critic last year, representing PALCS CPFA in the Greater Philadelphia Area CAPPIES awards, and was also nominated for Outstanding Comic Actor for his performance as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

When asked about what advice Lionel would give to other families who may be considering the switch to cyber school, he explained, “Make sure you find lots of social opportunities outside of the cyber charter setting so that your child feels comfortable engaging in one-on-one, face-to-face communication. Take advantage of opportunities to get away from the computer and take “adventure” days – since schooling from home makes it possible to do that! The great thing about cyber schooling is that you can do it overlooking the beach, at the top of a mountain, or from your bedroom. If you have a play deadline in three days, you can take a break from school to finish it – and then jump back in and get all of the school done in time. There aren’t walls or boxes, so love the freedom of it all.”

Thank you to Lionel and Aileen McCulloch for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulations to Lionel on his outstanding successes. We are so proud of you!