Essex Street Academy

Phone: (212) 475-4773
Website: Click here
Admissions: Manhattan priority
Principal: Erin Carstensen
Neighborhood: Lower East Side/ Chinatown
District: 2
Grade range: 09 thru 12

What's special:

Offbeat courses, relaxed environment, college advisory.

The downside:

Limited course offerings

The InsideStats


Our review

Essex Street Academy is a small, artsy school with a progressive approach to education. Its small class sizes, untraditional courses and supportive staff keep students engaged in classes, involved in extracurricular activities, and for the most part, on track for college.

Essex is part of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) a national network of schools founded by Theodore Sizer, who believed that small schools that concentrate on teaching a few subjects well are more effective than large schools that teach a wide array of subjects.

“Our strength is our school culture and how we take care of our students,” said Principal Erin Carstensen.  A member of the school’s founding faculty, Carstensen was a teacher and assistant principal at the school before taking the helm in June, 2010.

The vibe throughout the school is calm and informal.  During free periods, seniors can work on college applications in the principal’s office, a comfy space decorated with wood paneling and a faux fireplace.  In classes, teachers deliver lessons in conversational tones; students are at ease speaking up in class and chatting with teachers in the hallways.

Many Essex students begin high school performing below grade level.  To move kids forward, class sizes are kept small and serve multiple grades, typically combining students in grades 9 with 10 and grades 11 with 12.  Daily, small-group advisories give all students a forum to address social and academic issues.

Most classes are structured around themes. For instance, social studies offerings include Conflict and Religion, U.S. in the Cold War, and Understanding the Holocaust.  Some have unconventional names like Write for Your Life, Drosophilia Love (intro to genetics) and the senior chemistry class, Fun with Fleshy Fruit.  Math classes are more traditional and run from algebra through calculus.

Lessons are designed to get students to be more reflective and independent in their work.  In the Fleshy Fruit class, students wrap up a two-week study of enzymes by designing and conducting experiments that test enzyme reactions and recording their findings in a research paper.  In literature class, students examine parallelism in writing, the use of similar word patterns to express similar ideas, while reading James McBride’s, The Color of Water.

Essex received a state waiver from administering all but the English Regents exam.  In place of high-stakes exams, the teachers use portfolio-based assessments, which require students to demonstrate mastery of their coursework though oral and written presentations.

Like most small schools, Essex’s course offerings are limited.  There are no Advanced Placement exams, but in foreign languages, students have a choice of studying Spanish, French or Portuguese.  Studio art and music are offered to students in all grades. Theater is offered to 11th and 12th graders only.

Located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Essex is one of five small high schools housed in the Seward Park Educational Complex.

The school invests a lot in its college office, funding two counselors, onsite SAT courses and overnight trips to visit college campuses.  Roughly 95 percent of graduates from the class of 2011 were accepted to two- or four-year colleges, including Hamilton, Hobart and William Smith, Ithaca, Smith, Syracuse and the University of Rochester.

Special education: Roughly 23 percent of students have special needs.  Essex has ICT (Integrated Collaborative Teaching) classes in math and literature, each lead by two teachers.  In science and history classes, special education teachers and para-professionals “push in” support services.  Literacy support classes are offered to struggling readers.

After school:  There’s a range of after school clubs and activities including film, fitness, mock trial, newspaper, student government, community service and theater.  A full list is available on the school’s website.  Students can apply to ESA Abroad, the school’s summer travel program, which funds overseas trips for select students.  Past trips have been to Peru, Brazil and Japan.  (Laura Zingmond, October, 2011)


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