Academy of Arts and Letters
BROOKLYN NY 11205 Map
Academy of Arts and Letters
Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters has become the go-to school for a racially mixed group of families in District 13, attracted by its diverse arts offerings, relatively small class size and its emphasis on community-building and helping young people develop strong thinking skills.
Opened as a small middle school in 2006, Arts and Letters was designed to serve grades 6-12, but in 2011 it changed course and began admitting kindergarten and 1st graders as the first step to becoming a K-8 school.
The downside of the new configuration for district families is that it will reduce the number of middle school classes by half. And, it will no longer have an affiliation with Urban Assembly, which works only with secondary schools.
The switch to K-8 has not been without challenges. The school grappled with how to configure its expanding space in a shared building and decided to place the older children at the ends of the hallway and the younger ones in between. Prospective parents worried about the safety of 4-year-olds sharing the halls with 13-year-olds. Some in the neighborhood questioned the need for a new elementary school. Observers saw racial issues emerging in an area that is increasingly white and, in fact, the elementary grades have a higher percentage of white children than either the middle school or PS 20. Adding to the uncertainty, shortly after its expansion in February 2012, founding principal Allison Gaines Pell announced she would leave to go to the Blue School, a private school in downtown Manhattan in June 2012. Her co-director, John O'Reilly, who joined the school in 2007, will continue on at the school. It "won't skip a beat," said Gaines-Pell.
Many see the new configuration as a success -- adding a new dimension to a school that fosters personal responsibility and caring for others. Students at Arts and Letters were always pretty compassionate, O'Reilly said, and "the interage thing has emphasized that." As for the kindergartners, one parent said, they adore the older students -- "they're like rock stars."
The relationship with PS 20 is friendly and collaborative, Gaines-Pell said, with the two schools partnering on a renovation of the auditorium and a newly painted track in the schoolyard.
Parents of younger children can spend the first 20 minutes of the day reading in their child's classrooms. Each school day begins with a meeting: middle school in the gym, and the lower school in their classrooms. To build connections to the city, students take frequent field trips, and community members are invited to attend regular presentations of student work and give feedback. There is an emphasis on small group work and free-flowing discussion in classes, rather than test prep.
"They encourage them to go deeper with their ideas, even at kindergarten," a parent said, citing trips to Fort Greene Park for lessons encompassing science, social studies and art.
Sixth graders take visual art, 7th graders, music and technology and 8th graders, theater arts. All get an additional three periods of art weekly, allowing for in-depth exploration.
English classes were lively with students eagerly discussing point of view in "The House on Mango Street" or comparing Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" with the recent version by the rapper Common. The science and math classes we saw were less advanced.
Test scores, among the highest in the district, lag behind top schools in neighboring districts, especially in math. The school has focused attention on its math curriculum, encouraging students to work together, revise their work and persevere. A 6th grader explained how she calculated the advertising budget for a bagel shop. Her classmates gave her feedback about they liked in her presentation and what she should improve. "I could actually picture what she did," one student commented.
A computer program provides individualized math instruction, enabling some students to work on basic skills and others to go on to algebra. There are no Regents level math classes but the Robin Hood Foundation funds a program to help students who come in with low test scores.
Every middle school student has an adviser who meets with the parent and student on parent-teacher conference night, as opposed to the speed-dating approach typical of most middle school conferences. An online system, Jupiter, allows parents to see student assignments online.
Kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms have 25 students; middle school about 27.
Admission: All 5th-graders who list Arts & Letters first and second on their application are interviewed and asked to do a short writing and art activity. Until 2013 students from Districts 13, 14, 15 and 16 can apply. The school looks for students who will work well with others and who have an interest in the arts. By 2015-2016, when the school is fully grown, current 5th-graders will have priority in admission.
The elementary school is unzoned, open to only District 13 residents. Selection is random.
Special Education: Brooklyn Arts has collaborative team teaching classes on every grade and no self-contained special education classes.
Graduates go on to a variety of high schools, with Essex Street Academy, NYCiSchool, LaGuardia and Brooklyn Community High School of Communication, Arts and Media the most popular choices in 2011. A few were admitted to selective schools such as Brooklyn Tech and Bard. (Gail Robinson, January 2012)