Gotham Professional Arts Academy
Brooklyn NY 11233
Frequent school trips; small supportive atmosphere
Shared space in elementary school building; high crime neighborhood
Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford Stuyvesant attracts artsy students who prefer a non-traditional setting. The school even sponsors "Oddball days" for students and staff to celebrate the ways in which all are different.
Opened in 2007 by Alex White, a longtime theater and arts teacher at Urban Academy, Gotham has adopted many of that school's features, such as mixed-age class groupings and a relaxed, supportive atmosphere. Like Urban, it is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which promotes small, personal schools that have "portfolio assessments" rather than standardized tests. Students are on a first name basis with staff and they have a voice in making decisions.
Students are exempt from taking most Regents exams but must demonstrate their mastery of topics through in-depth oral and written presentations known as portfolio based assessments, or PBATs.
Classes last 60 minutes and have unusual names and themes to keep kids interested. The X-files is really an algebra class; PG 13 is geometry. For those who have time in their schedule, electives include the spoken word, lyrical poetry, lamp-making and capoeira. Through a partnership with the Fashion Institute of Technology, Gotham students may take fashion and design Saturday workshops at FIT.
Entering ninth graders are given an introductory arts course with six-week sessions that rotate among visual art, criticism, production and performance. Students then choose which major they wish to pursue.
"The arts flag that we fly attracts students who define as different from mainstream. We tend to attract Brooklyn kids who love Japanese anime and have unusual music taste, who are into acting or willing to be different," White said.
Many students come in ill-prepared to do high school work. Most attend a short summer bridge for an introduction to school routines and an assessment of their reading and math skills. The pace of instruction can be slow, but understanding concepts takes precedence over plowing through the curriculum. Some students take a pre-algebra course. All 9th graders take a persuasive writing course which incorporates the main concepts in Common Core English studies and also lays the foundation for courses such as Art Criticism.
Gotham is housed on the top floor of PS 40. With no lockers, narrow hallways and facilities built for small children, it's not an ideal setting. However, the location, just a few blocks from the C subway train, is crucial for a school that takes lots of field trips.
The whole school goes on trips about every three weeks, including visits to the Bronx Zoo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History and to performances. All trips are tied into class lessons. A trip to see Calder's mobiles was part of a project to plan how to create movable sculptures with robotics.
Gotham is one of a handful of city schools that has students in the mayor's Coro Youth Leadership Program, advising the city on educational policy and learning to address problems in their school.
"One of the things we're most proud of is the tone in the school," said White. "Most students hug each other when they come in, they hug the safety agent." On the Learning Environment Survey, students say they feel safer inside the school than outside. The surrounding neighborhood is crime-ridden, White said. "We've worked very hard to make it a safe space in the neighborhood."
In response to incidents of fighting, the staff "gave students voice" in Town Hall meetings, White said, to help find a solution. "Students redefined what is acceptable. Now you hear students say, 'we don't fight in this school.'" A week of anti-bullying activities took place including Project Oddball, in which every person was invited to wear a bib displaying how they are odd. There is an active gay-straight alliance.
Special education: There are teacher support services and co-teaching classes. "We've had spectacular success using PBATs instead of Regents," White said.
After school: There is an after-school Robotics Club, led by an award-winning science teacher, anime, improv, a boys basketball team and an annual talent show. After school tutoring is available for all students.
College: Many graduates go to upstate SUNY colleges.
Admission: Citywide, limited unscreened. The school works best for students interested in careers in art and design. (Eliana Mascio/Pamela Wheaton, January 2013)