Beacon High School
MANHATTAN NY 10023 Map
Beacon High School
Founded in 1993, Beacon was in the first wave of dozens of small, alternative high schools that opened in the 1990s and is now one of the most established and sought-after. Thousands apply for about 250 9th-grade seats and some students choose it over specialized schools like LaGuardia or Bronx Science.
Beacon belongs to a consortium of 30 New York state schools whose students are exempt from taking most state-mandated Regents exams and present portfolios of their work, instead of taking tests. The school stresses international travel and a well-rounded liberal arts education. At the same time, it has become increasingly academic, with lots of homework. At nearly 1200 students, it is no longer small.
Principal Ruth Lacey was an elementary school art teacher before becoming one of the school’s founding teachers. She sought to bring the nurturing atmosphere found in elementary schools into the high school. Teens “need the same kind of nurture but in a different way,” she said. Advisory groups of about 15 to 20 students stay together all four years. Some find their best friends among this group. A “Big Sibs” program matches 9th graders with older student mentors. Known also for its sports teams, Beacon students have won PSAL soccer and tennis championships, and track team members have brought home top honors.
The content and conversation in classes is substantial, earnest, and creative. In Literature and the Human Condition, students discussed Kafka’s The Trial, flipping through their books, filled with post-it notes, indicating close reading and preparedness. Art students worked on sculptures about “identity” using unconventional materials like condoms or orange peels along with paper and cardboard. In Advanced Math Applications the teacher walked students through a tax form. In an Immunology elective, half the class examined parasites using microscopes, while the other half researched factors that can cause an epidemic.
Beacon’s committed staff seeks to strike a balance between the arts and academics. An Algebra I class studied equations of lines through the work of American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. A girl in Digital Photography clicked through photos of girls in headscarves as part of her Tolerance-themed project: “It’s about what you wear for your religion and how it affects how others see you,” she explained.
The converted warehouse that houses the school was designed with special attention to the arts including a “black-box” drama studio, a dark room, and music rooms used by the school’s many rock bands. The art room is large enough to accommodate those who want to work there during free periods.
While Beacon once aimed for kids in the middle, now only those who score above average on 7th grade standardized tests are admitted. “For teachers it makes it a lot easier,” said history teacher and tennis coach Bayard Faithfull. “When you give kids a text, you know they’ll be able to read it.” Yet Sam, a 12th grader, finds the practice of screening incoming students to be “a paradox,” adding, “I would see a good school as one that can teach all students.”
One 11th grade parent said the school’s academic expectations increase gradually over the years so they are manageable. But a 10th grade parent said 9th grade was “crazy hard” for her child, who struggled through books like Genghis Khan after track workouts, and put in long hours on the big, in-depth projects upon which students are assessed. Because Beacon does not have honors classes, a parent said all classes have a kind of honors-class intensity.
The parent of a student who was diagnosed with special needs as a sophomore said the school “is not particularly supportive of kids who are struggling.” However, once accommodations were put in place – like joining a geometry class with two teachers (one trained in special education), dropping Spanish, and getting extra help in math and humanities – the pressure eased for the student, who decided to stay.
College and guidance counselor Dara Klein said college acceptances have “never been better.” Seniors go on to colleges like Oberlin, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Macauley Honors, Amherst and Bard and they love to come back and visit. In 2010-11 five students received Posse Scholarships, awarded to students who show a gift for leadership, motivation and teamwork. Another won a Questbridge Scholarship, open to bright, motivated, low-income students.
Admissions: Beacon is a selective school, open citywide. Applicants are interviewed by Beacon students, as well as staff, and must present a portfolio of their work. A student’s grades, 7th grade standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations are also considered. The school is “looking for kids who excel in something other than academics” and “have the ability to juggle things,” said Faithfull. Beacon has about 300 more students than the building is meant to house and is scheduled to move to a bigger location in Hell's Kitchen at 530 West 44th Street. The move date is not yet set
Special education: Beacon offers special education teacher support services (SETSS), formerly called resource room and CTT classes. This school is featured in NYC's Best Public High Schools: A Parent's Guide. (Lydie Raschka, May 2011 )