Academy of Arts and Letters
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An emphasis on creative thinking, strong arts programs
Shrinking number of middle school slots, no foreign language instruction
The Academy of Arts & Letters, an unzoned k-8 school in Fort Greene with two classes per grade, infuses the arts into its curriculum and fosters personal responsibility and caring for others.
Each school day begins with a meeting: the entire middle school in the gym, and the lower school students in their classrooms.
Parents, community members and educators are invited to attend twice-annual presentations of student work--called Roundtables--and ask probing questions and give feedback. Arts & Letters was chosen by the Department of Education to share with other schools its strategies for fostering student voice, independence and "thinking and wondering," Principal John O'Reilly said.
There is an emphasis on small group work and discussion in classes, rather than test prep or worksheets. To build connections to the city, students take frequent field trips. "They encourage them to go deeper with their ideas, even at kindergarten," a parent said, citing trips to Fort Greene Park for lessons encompassing science, social studies and art.
Sixth-graders took a walking tour of neighborhood brownstones and made clay sculptures of what they saw.
Opened as a middle school in 2006, Arts & Letters was set up to serve grades 6-12, but in 2011 it changed course and began admitting kindergarten and 1st-graders as the first step to becoming a full k-8 school by September 2015 with about 500 students. With the wide age range in the school, kindergartners eat lunch in their classrooms because the cafeteria can be overwhelming for them.
For families, the downside of the school's expansion is that it reduced the number of middle school classes by half, in a district that parents say has few quality options. In addition, the middle school, which drew from several districts in its early years, has a racially and socio-economically diverse population, while the elementary grades mostly enroll affluent, white families from the immediate neighborhood, despite a computerized lottery.
"I'm struggling with diversity, both economic and racial," said O'Reilly. He would like to be able to set aside a certain percentage of seats for low-income families, an objective he said was shared by the school's Parents Association, but the Department of Education has so far not agreed to a controlled choice plan. [In 2015, Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina agreed to a policy by which students who qualify for free or reduced lunch would have priority for 40 percent of seats.]
Active families are a hallmark of the school. Parents of kindergartners may spend the first 20 minutes of the day reading in their children's classrooms, and many do, especially at the beginning of the year.
Learning is project-based and students do long units of study. Third-graders have studied birds, each choosing a particular bird to focus on, and then presenting their findings at a Roundtable. Second-graders have studied folktales and created shadow puppets. Baking bread was a lesson in both science and math. There is a wide range of abilities, especially in the middle school, although there are no honors or Regents-level courses for 8th-graders. About a dozen 8th-graders take algebra as an elective, three hours a week.
Every middle school student has an adviser who meets with parents and students on parent-teacher conference night, as opposed to the speed-dating approach typical of most middle school conferences. Middle school teachers lead advisories of 16 students. An online system, Jupiter, allows parents to see student assignments.
Middle school test scores are among the highest in the district, but they lag behind scores of top schools in neighboring districts. The majority of 3rd-grade families chose to opt out of state standardized testing in 2014, primarily in protest over teacher evaluations being tied to test results, the principal said.
Sixth- and 7th-graders take visual art and 8th-graders take music. Three hours of arts electives per week allows for in-depth exploration. There also are collaborations with outside arts organizations such as Brooklyn Music School and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. However, there is no foreign language instruction in the school.
There is an active after-school chorus for both middle and elementary students, as well as LEGO robotics, chess and Brooklyn Grange farming where 40 middle school students spend two days a week at a rooftop farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The elementary grades share some after-school programs with PS 20, which is in the same building. The schools work together on various projects, the principal said, including a renovation of the schools' playground.
Popular high school choices for 2014 graduates were Bedford Academy, Millennium Brooklyn and Beacon as well as arts-focused schools such as Art and Design, Brooklyn High School of the Arts and LaGuardia. A handful of students go to specialized schools including Brooklyn Tech and Brooklyn Latin.
Special education: There are ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes on every grade.
Admission: Unzoned. Open to District 13 residents. Selection is random for the elementary school but siblings get priority, and in 2014 took up 31 of the 50 kindergarten seats. Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, students who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch have priority for 40 percent of seats. All 5th-graders who list Arts & Letters first and second on their applications are interviewed and asked to do a short writing and art activity. The school looks for students who work well with others and who have an interest in the arts. Fifth-graders currently enrolled in the school have priority in middle school admission. In fall 2017, the school projected there would be only about 5-6 spots for incoming 6th graders from outside the school. (Pamela Wheaton, February 2015; updated Dec. 2015, Aug. 2016, Nov. 2017)Read more