Choir Academy of Harlem
OCTOBER 2014 UPDATE: The Choir Academy of Harlem is being phased out and replaced after years of poor performance. No new students were admitted in September 2013, and the phase-out will be completed in June 2016. The DOE has proposed to open and co-locate a new district high school in the building. In 2014 Lennel George became principal when Melissa Vaughan left to become principal of Satellite West Middle School in Brooklyn. George was formerly principal at Metropolitan Corporate Academy (now closed) and the Cobble Hill School of American Studies.
APRIL 2011 REVIEW: Slated for shutdown in early 2010 owing to poor academic performance, the Choir Academy of Harlem got a second lease on life after legal delays postponed closure long enough to let educators raise the school’s progress report grade from a D to a B. Today, the leaders of this combination middle and high school are working to regain the academy’s once-enviable reputation as a place where scholarship and music coexist.
The task is a challenging one. When we visited in 2011, the academy seemed functional yet lacked the megawatt energy needed to sustain a comeback. Classes were irregular, with students excited and engaged in one classroom yet listless in another. Students sometimes ignored the school dress code, and tardy teens loitering in the hallways paid minimal heed to authority figures. More ominous were recent enrollment figures: Whereas the academy had accepted up to 90 freshmen in past years, in 2010 the freshman class totaled 35 kids—a sign many parents and teens aren’t convinced the school has a solid future.
Choir Academy of Harlem was started in 1993 by Walter Turnbull, founder and director of the famed Boys Choir of Harlem. Turnbull envisioned the school as a home for both academics and vocal training, and for a time the Academy basked in praise. Then, in 2001, a 14-year-old student accused a longtime choir counselor of sexual abuse, and an investigation by the city found that Turnbull and others had failed to report the allegations. The DOE evicted the choir from the building in 2006, part of a downward spiral hastened by Turnbull’s death in 2007 and a revolving door of five principals in six years.
The turnover “started to affect the foundation of the school,” explained Dr. Ellen Parris, who became principal in January 2008, when the school administration and DOE were viewed as the enemy. “It was a pretty challenging task,” Parris said. “When I came in, the students and parents were in charge of the school, not the administration.”
Since Parris’s arrival, the Choir Academy has added dance and instrumental music to a curriculum that once featured vocal training exclusively. Most classrooms now have interactive SMARTboards, some courses offer an honors track, and extra tutoring is available after school and on weekends. In 11th grade, students get a full year of SAT tutoring, which led to a 108-point jump in average test scores in 2010. Ileana, a senior, said the preparation helped when she took her SAT test. “I felt prepared. I felt I didn’t need to be nervous,” she said.
In the middle school, teachers rotate in and out of classrooms while students stay put. “Middle-schoolers are a little bit playful,” Parris explained. “But when you have 200 being playful at the same time, it’s a little bit much.”
Choir Academy shares a bland East Harlem building with Promise Academy II, a charter school serving K-6. (Parris often speaks of facing “political” pressures and challenges, a reference to charter schools’ growing stature in Harlem and Promise Academy’s plans for expansion.) Classrooms face inward and lack windows, which muffles noise from the nearby MTA elevated train line but also blocks natural light.
The building’s large auditorium offers an excellent performance space, but practice rooms for choir and instrumental training looked functional yet plain. Still, the Choir Academy’s singers have performed at the United Nations and other notable venues, and students even provided backup vocals to Paul McCartney during a December 2010 show at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.
“We’re not perfect. Nobody is,” said Ileana, the senior. “But at the end of the day, we’re still a good school. Everybody sticks together.”
Special education: Students in 6th through 9th grades who need special attention are taught in self-contained classes that typically have 12 students per class.
Admissions: The Choir Academy is selective and citywide, although priority is given to students in District 5. Students must audition, submit an essay and participate in an interview. Grades are considered, but “we are not looking to get just the top-of-the-line students,” Parris said. The school typically accepts 80 to 85 percent of applicants each year, she said. (Skip Card, April 2011)