Urban Academy Laboratory High School
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Liberating atmosphere for intellectual students
Some students need more structure
Urban Academy Laboratory High School is the offbeat granddaddy of alternative schools, open to 9th-graders as well as older students who want to transfer. Those who attend feel liberated from much of the burden of testing, enjoy choosing their classes, get to complete in-depth projects, participate in weekly community service-based internships and enjoy a wide variety of arts classes.
Urban Academy “attempts to reduce the formal trappings of traditional education” while maintaining “rigorous academic standards,” Principal Adam Grumbach said. It is part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools exempt from administering all but the English Regents exam. In order to graduate, student must complete PBATs (performance based assessment tasks), which involve extensive research and reading as well as writing and presenting papers in English, math, history, science, creative arts.
The schools serves all kinds students including those who have floundered at high-performing schools such as Stuyvesant and Murrow, who are unsatisfied with low-performing schools and who dislike Regents exams but want to go to college. They commute from all five boroughs and come from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The tone is relaxed. There is a “tradition of respect among students and staff” and the school wants its students to feel comfortable, Grumbach explained. Before and after school you may find students playing ping pong or relaxing on the couches in the lounge. Students call their teachers by their first names. Class size ranges from about 12 to 25 students, according to the school’s website.
Students may choose their classes from titles like “Puerto Rico: Past, Present and the Future” and “Human Behavior: You Can Google That!” Students may be asked to debate Christopher Columbus’s legacy taking “a position and arguing using evidence” rather than writing “a report on how Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America,” the school’s website describes. Students also choose from arts classes such as painting, photography (darkroom and digital), filmmaking, dance, playwriting, raps & beats, and poetry.
Instead of offering Advanced Placement classes, students have the option of taking courses at local colleges like Hunter College and Sarah Lawrence College, according to the school’s website.
Students get a lot of individual attention, with teachers committed to supporting them in and out of the classroom, Grumbach said, and volunteers tutor students after school. There is one school counselor and a social worker from Mount Sinai Hospital available in the school-based health clinic.
One afternoon a week, students go to their community service internship. In the past students have spent their time at museums, non-profits, senior citizen centers, and state senators' offices, the school’s website explains.
Students receive an unusual amount of support throughout the college process. College counselors are responsible for fewer than 20 students each, the school organizes visits to local colleges, and a financial aid specialist is available, according to the school’s website. Students have been accepted into a range of schools including Oberlin, Bard, Rochester Institute for Technology, art schools, CUNYs and SUNYs.
Urban Academy is located in the Julia Richman Educational Complex on the Upper East Side. The complex houses six schools and they share some facilities including the library, cafeteria, pool and gym. The high schools in the building field a handful of PSAL sports teams and Urban Academy offers extracurricular activities like photography, math lab and Dungeons and Dragons.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school has special education teacher support services (SETSS), integrated co-teaching (ICT), speech and language therapy and counseling.
ADMISSIONS: Open to New York City residents. The school’s admissions process includes a student visit, a written application, and an interview. Parent tours are also offered. Students can apply for fall or spring semester. (Katharine Safter, web reports and phone interview, July 2018; updated August 2020)