Bronx Academy of Letters
BRONX NY 10451 Map
Bronx Academy of Letters
FEBRUARY 2007 UPDATE: In September 2007, Bronx School of Letters will add a 6th grade, beginning its expansion to a school serving grades 6 to 12.
MARCH 2004 REVIEW: The premise of the Bronx School of Letters is as simple as it is profound: Learning to read and write well is the key to success in any academic endeavor. Small classes with as few as 12 students in the all-important writing seminars together with passionate teachers who are well-versed in their subject matter and a dynamic principal who is a master fund-raiser make this new high school an unusually promising place.
Founding principal Joan Sullivan is a Yale graduate who studied history and published a book on her experiences working on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. She has created a small school in which children are surrounded by great books; coached in the art of reading and writing by attentive, knowledgeable teachers; and exposed to professional writers regularly. Opened in 2003 with just 75 9th graders, the school has attracted tens of thousands of dollars in grant money, lots of book donations, and graduate student volunteers who work with children individually on their writing.
The school is housed in a wing of the former IS 183, an undistinguished concrete building constructed in the 1970s that also houses two small middle schools and a District 75 program for severely disabled children. Some of the cinderblock rooms have no windows, and the surroundings are clean but basic. The school has its own entrance and a central "common room," lined with books, that give it a sense of its own space within the larger building. It takes students a bit longer to settle down than would be ideal, but once classes begin, students seem engaged with lots of questions, serious discussions and hands in the air. In a math class, the students most of whom entered the school with weak skills were discussing how to multiply and divide numbers with exponents. In an English class, students listened to a classmate's essay on police corruption and offered suggestions for improvement.
Sullivan, who taught for three years at the Bronx School of Law and Government, recruited her five first teachers from as far away as Texas, Chicago and Boston. A math teacher graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18 and worked as an options trader in Chicago. Sullivan also recruited a "writer in residence" Matt Sharpe, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sleeping Father, which tells the story of how two adolescents cope when their father falls into a coma. Sharpe meets regularly with students to discuss the art of writing.
Class size is smaller than standard for the city, with 25 students in most classes and just 12 in seminars dedicated to writing. Teachers draw students out by encouraging them to write on topics that interest them. One student wrote a three-page essay on hypocrisy in the police department, while another wrote about teenagers and sex. But teachers also hold firm to a traditional canon: children read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, as part of a study of ancient Rome, the Epic of Gilgamesh while studying Mesopotamia, and the story of King Arthur while studying the Middle Ages. Every two weeks, there is a Regents-style exam in global history, so students are well-prepared for the real thing in the spring.
In the first year, the school admitted many children who did poorly in middle school, including some with discipline problems. But teachers take a hard line on even minor misbehavior, and that seems to prevent larger problems. On my visit, a girl who said "Shut up!" to another child and who continued to speak rudely after the teacher asked her to stop was asked to leave the room. She spent the rest of the day in a small office, working on her homework, under the supervision of another teacher who was also tutoring two other children (who hadn't misbehaved, but just needed extra help). "We all know each other," said the girl, who was enthusiastic about the school despite her punishment. "The teachers spend time with us after school. You get a lot of attention."
Admissions: The school has no admission requirements except an interest in writing and working hard. Children are encouraged to attend an informational meeting before applying. (Clara Hemphill, March 2004. This school is profiled New York City's Best Public High Schools.)