HARLEM — Harlem Academy, an independent school in Central Harlem at 1330 Fifth Ave., is an alternative for parents looking to challenge their children, according to its founder.
“For me, education at its best should be transformational,” said Vinny Dotoli, who also heads up the school.
“It should be the opportunity to achieve the American Dream, it should have this focus on upward mobility that I think is often missing in our education system.”
Founded in 2004, Harlem Academy was meant to be an alternative for parents looking for something other than public, charter and parochial schools.
It targets gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds and its environment borrows from the atmospheres of the elite New England private schools where Dotoli used to work after attending Columbia University's Teacher's College.
“I saw Harlem Academy as the chance to kind of throw some agitation on that,” he said. “To disrupt what I saw as elements of a system that seemed unfair to me.”
Dotoli sat down with DNAinfo New York to discuss how the school has gained its footing in the neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get this idea for a school while at Teacher’s College?
In some ways I would say there are two things that stuck out to me. One is this gap. If you look at the education landscape, you have public schools and some of them focus on reform and improvement and Catholic schools and charters and they’re trying to be the best they can to help kids reach a very basic level of preparation, high school graduation and enrollment in college. But for the most part if you were thinking national percentile, the curriculum at those models is going to help kids get to the 80th, maybe 90th percentile.
Then at the very top you have the citywide gifted and talented program pretty much setting the cut-off at the high 90s at the percentile norm to get into these programs. So what does that do for a family that maybe doesn’t have a lot of resources and maybe hasn’t been given the kind of test prep that a wealthier family can get?
So, on their own they can maybe reach the 86th percentile, so that kid in a traditional school is likely to regress down to the mean and is not going to realize their potential.
We say, “Okay, what kind of school can we create where we're going to have the freedom to support high-potential kids from disadvantaged backgrounds?”
The other void we saw is, what if we take a school culture that, in any respect, can be found at any elite private school from any wealthy neighborhood in the country, except build that school in an underserved neighborhood like Central Harlem?
How does the school operate differently than others?
Harlem Academy is an independent school so in a lot of ways it's very different than lots of other schools that are in our community here, but it’s designed to serve the population that lives here. So most private schools have a very high tuition for almost all of the students and a small percentage of scholarships available.
The way this school is set up in a way that’s different than other private schools is that we operate on a sliding scale, so that any family where a student is qualified and we think is going to thrive in our school culture and within our curriculum, we will find tuition that is reasonable for that family. Everyone has to make a tuition payment, but it is always based on their income and is set to be reasonable. We don’t turn a family away because of their inability to pay and that is something we hold very dear.
Why a private school?
What we have found is that there are not good opportunities in this community for gifted children, for high-potential children. If they don’t tend to get the absolute top scores that it would take to get into one of citywide gifted and talented programs, this neighborhood is not represented in those programs. And at the same time other schools in the community are not pushing a rigorous academic program to challenge these kids.
How do you identify “gifted” children?
Most of the people who come to Harlem Academy are students who have very strong grades at public or charter schools and have someone in their family who says, “My kid should be doing more.” Sometimes they might be the student the teacher says, “Oh, can you help other students,” or “I’m going to let you demonstrate this.”
But what the parents see is that they are not being challenged to do what they know they can do. It is another choice for families. They don’t think that it serves their child well to just walk around without having to work hard and feel like he or she is the smartest kid on the block and it's really because they haven’t been challenged enough.
What were some of the challenges when you first got started?
It was a real challenge. I will always have a special place in my heart for all of the founding families. Until we actually started graduating students and could show that record and that complete path, I think any family that took a chance on Harlem Academy during its first eight years I consider to be a part of our founding family group.
They made a decision that it was different. Thankfully there were enough people who had faith that we were going to deliver what we said we were going to ... I have to recognize there was a measure of faith involved there.