Harlem Academy, Developing Students and School

Out in Harlem, New York, Vincent Dotoli still can’t wrap his mind around it. There are simply too many children slipping through the cracks of our education system. Mostly, these are low-income students with test scores in the 75th–85th percentile. “Those scores,” Dotoli—the head of school at Harlem Academy—explains, “are too high to receive attention at public or charter schools where so many struggling students need special attention just to reach minimum standards. But these scores are also too low for them get into the competitive programs.”

Harlem Academy opened in September 2004 with a mission to drive opportunity for promising, low-income students who might otherwise be left behind.  Its first class consisted of 12 first graders. The main focus was on core academic skills—reading, writing, and thinking critically. In just a year, Harlem Academy expanded, moving to a larger space and adding grades. Today, the school occupies a few buildings off Fifth Avenue, serving grades one through eight. The student body consists of around 120 children, and there are plans to open a permanent campus.

Harlem Academy is a private school. Its students mainly come from Harlem, the South Bronx, and Washington Heights. In 90 percent of the districts it serves, no kindergarten students scored high enough to access the competitive citywide Gifted and Talented programs. At HA, tuition is set on a sliding scale. Here, no qualified student is turned away. Based on the school’s data, 15 percent of HA’s operating costs are covered by tuition. Donors supply the other 85 percent. The cost per student is comparable to that of the local public schools, and will improve when they move into their own building. A growing number of donors are investing in the school each year as well.

In the classroom, there is an emphasis on intellectual engagement, character development, and family partnership. A major goal at HA is to help students thrive at the highest academic levels, enabling them to catch up with higher income peers.

The program is starting to attract attention more broadly across the education world. Teachers and education leaders visit to see the program in action, and two national journals will be publishing articles in the next six months. “Excellence and transparency,” says Dotoli. “We want to get great ideas out there—and we want to share everything we learn.”

On a recent visit, in mid-November, I walk in on a group of fourth grade students getting ready to play chess. Their teacher is going over the rules of the tournament. When he’s finished, one of the students has a question.

“What happens if you get eliminated?” he asks.
“You cry,” exclaims another.

There’s about a second of silence, and then the entire room laughs. For this group of students, chess is clearly fun. But it is more than just a game where a loss will lead to elimination, which may or may not lead to tears. It is a game that teaches students to consider consequences before they take an action; it demonstrates an important life skill.

So in some ways, Harlem Academy’s ethos is simple. And yet, at the same time, its practices are also deeply innovative. “We’ve learned that we must put the majority of the focus on core academic skills and strong habits,” stresses Dotoli. “Rather than worry about what books we’re going to read or what historical era we are going to study, we want to make sure our students are getting enough high-quality at-bats, so they develop the skills they need.”

Later that afternoon, I meet some students. They politely introduce themselves, and we take a seat in the school’s library. A boy named Caden tells me about what he’s doing in class—learning vocab words, classifying the properties of rocks, studying their orders. He’s also reading a book called The Runaway Hug. “Sometimes,” he adds, “I read at a two-point-five level, but sometimes I read books above three-point-two,” representing second and third grade reading levels. Caden is in first grade.

At Harlem Academy, there is a school creed. It builds off of four core pillars. A first grade student tells me what they are. “Integrity,” she says, “is having values and being honest. Initiative is doing things on your own. Compassion is caring for others. And Determination”—she tilts her head down and her eyes look up—“is not giving up.”

Never give up. That one rings true with Dotoli. And although there have been complications and struggles—“anytime you want to do something to a very high standard, it’s going to be challenging,” he reports—the entire first graduating class at Harlem Academy finished high school in four years. Of that group, 92 percent are currently enrolled in four-year colleges.

It’s an incredible accomplishment. In Dotoli’s view, the school is raising the ceiling for low-income children. He knows, given the proper resources and skills, that these children will have better opportunities. Will there be more challenges along the way for both the students and the school? Yes. “But we’re a good bet,” Dotoli assures, “and there’s still an opportunity to be a part of the founding team to actually build the school’s home and ensure its permanence.” All he asks is that you come spend an hour at Harlem Academy and witness it in action.