Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Bonnie Rosenstock 

George Jackson Academy students made a toast, with soda, to their continued academic success during a formal dining etiquette luncheon at the Friars Club.

St. Mark’s middle school preps students for success

By Bonnie Rosenstock 

“To wipe your mouth, take the napkin from your lap, dab it around your mouth, don’t rub. Then lay it back down on your lap,” explained Tom Gold, former New York City Ballet principal dancer, as he demonstrated the proper way to perform this sequence. Listening attentively were two young men to whom Gold was teaching formal dining etiquette at a luncheon in June at the Friars Club on E. 55th St. These participants were not the big engines of enterprise — at least not yet. They were 14-year-old eighth graders, the 2009 graduating class from George Jackson Academy, located at 104 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.

After spending the last four or five years at the insular world of George Jackson — which offers grades 4 through 8 — the boys, who are some of the city’s best and brightest middle-schoolers, requested the lesson in order to be prepared to fit into the next phase of their academic lives. They are headed to the real world of high school at such faraway prep schools as Andover, Concord Academy and St. Mark’s in Massachussets, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut and local elite high schools, like Stuyvesant, Bard, Poly Prep, Browning, Calhoun and Bronx Latin on partial or full scholarships.  

“We are very proud of their achievements,” said David M. Arnold, head of school. “We give them the tools they need and the character, strength and confidence to succeed in all different kinds of environments.”  

Dining details are just another challenge to these students’ inquiring minds. Apart from the exacting traditional school curriculum, they also studied such subjects as Latin, adolescent psychology, astronomy, social justice, comparative religion, civics, economics and architecture. Some learned to play string instruments and participated in choral work in partnership with Juilliard; others wrote and performed their own plays through the Theatre Development Fund.

What future fiction writer Brandon Lara of the Bronx, who is going to Brooklyn Friends, took away from the etiquette lesson was “a lot of important rules, like you should make everybody comfortable if you are the host.”

Making people feel comfortable is one of the hallmarks of George Jackson, which is based on the De La Salle tradition of educating the whole child, Arnold explained.

“Matters of the heart and spirit are as important as academic rigor,” he said. “They take a lot of care for younger peers, peers and the school itself. It becomes an extension of home. By the time they leave here, they are completely connected for life.”

George Jackson Academy was founded by Brother Brian Carty, founder and principal of the private, independent, nonsectarian De La Salle Academy, established in 1984, a middle school on W. 97th St. for academically gifted boys and girls from low-income families. Carty named the East Village academy in honor of one of his former students at the now-defunct Monsignor Kelly School on W. 83rd St. — George Jackson, former C.E.O. of Motown Records and film producer, who died in 2000 at age 42. 

Shortly before the Harlem-born-and-bred, Harvard-educated Jackson died, he and Carty were lamenting the fact that there weren’t enough eligible boys for De La Salle, and they believed a single-sex middle school would benefit them. Even though very little, if any, of the pledged $10 million from Jackson’s Hollywood friends, entertainers and Harvard materialized after his funeral, Carty began the school six years ago on a wing and a prayer and the determination to honor Jackson’s memory. He raised the money from many of the same sources that funded De La Salle. This fall, enrollment stands at 137 African-American, Latino and Asian students, who make the long trek from the South Bronx, northern Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.

Both De La Salle and George Jackson are need-blind institutions. In other words, they will not turn down any child who is qualified if his family can’t pay the tuition, “which is all of them,” noted Susan F. Siegel, the academy’s director of development. The school, which does not have an endowment, has to raise a “bare-boned budget” of $2 million every year. The biggest line item is for private bus transportation for the fourth and fifth graders. Although the tuition averages $14,000 per child, parents pay what they can, typically $100 a month for 10 months.

“Compared to private school tuition of between $28,000 to $35,000 annually, we are half and have probably the same or a better education,” Arnold stated. “For example, our students develop a mastery of Spanish far superior to any private school. The intellectual foment of the kids is really inspirational. It’s a joy to teach because they raise their hands and ask so many questions.” 

During the academic year Arnold teaches a course on how to navigate the high school placement process, and for the mandatory July summer session he instructs in great books. The school employs 16 teachers, many of whom are De La Salle alumni, plus a cadre of volunteers who are experts in their fields, like digital photography and computer technology.

“Our requirement is if they have a passion for the subject and can convey it to the kids,” said Arnold.

Admittedly, the academy focuses on a pre-select group of top students drawn from the city’s public schools. 

“We try to catch these boys before they become disaffected from learning,” said Arnold. “Oftentimes schools, rather than being a springboard to greater success and happiness, become an inhibitor. You are sometimes putting yourself at risk if you allow your intelligence to come out. The kids bully you.”

However, the vetting process is “tough as nails,” the head of school said. First, there is a written exam, an IQ test and a reading test. Most are reading two years above their grade level.

“If you have a great IQ but you can’t read, you can’t keep up with the academic demands,” Arnold said.

Next, they are put through a day of simulated classroom activities, including math, puzzle solving, writing and commenting on poetry and collaborative assignments to observe how they interact with each other. The final tier is interviewing the parents. 

“If they don’t have support at home, their parents are not involved or utterly clueless, no matter how motivated the kids are, left to their own devices, they will get into mischief and avoid work,” Arnold explained.

This year, 100 boys applied, and they accepted 33 — 18 for the one-section fourth grade and 16 for the fifth grade, which has two sections. 

So are the kids prepped to meet the preps? (Bravo’s reality show “NYC Prep” is every kid’s worst nightmare.) 

“Most of them do very well because they keep in touch with us,” said Siegel, the director of development. “They have developed the confidence and character to call people out on things and not fall into negative behavior. They get here early enough. By third grade, we can recognize certain qualities in a kid, and these qualities are nurtured. They are all little Obamas, ready to change the world.”

Arnold, who is a product of an all-boys school, is aware of some of the criticism leveled at single-sex schools. He described his own experience as “a highly competitive pressure cooker. Instead of teaching boys how to work with and support one another, we were taught to beat the hell out of one another,” he recalled. “The culture in this school is so antithetical to that highly rapacious individualism.”

Siegel cited a seven-year study, which included George Jackson Academy, just being completed by a prominent researcher at New York University’s Steinhardt School. 

“The conclusion was that a certain subset of boys will thrive in this kind of setting and should be given every opportunity,” she said.

Emmanuel Ntow from the Bronx, who wants to become an electrical engineer, is headed for the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side, his first choice. 

“In this small school I got more attention and help, and it has taught me to strive better,” Ntow said. “My brothers around me were also there to help during troubled times.”

For Austin Pu of Forest Hills, Queens, bound for the Upper East Side’s Trevor Day School for math, science and engineering, the etiquette lesson taught him “to try and not make a fool of myself.”

What George Jackson taught Pu was what being a brother was all about. And with that, he extended his hand to shake this reporter’s and went off to join his brothers for a final farewell. 

George Jackson Academy, 104 St. Mark’s Place.  Telephone: 212-228-6789. Web site: www.gjacademy.org . On Sat., Sept. 19, the St. Mark’s Block Association will hold a block party, proceeds from which will go to the school. In addition, the school is seeking donations of high-quality books in very good condition, levels 5th to 10th grade, for its growing library.




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