A Dream Grows in Harlem

IC forges a relationship with a remarkable inner-city school.

by Garry VanGorder

The Frederick Douglass Academy in central Harlem is an overwhelmingly African American and Latino high school whose students might be expected to forgo academics in light of the perils they face daily -- at home and on the streets they travel to and from school. Instead, the school has gained national acclaim for its devotion to academic rigor and student achievement -- qualities also esteemed at Ithaca College. On April 7 the FDA formalized its two-year relationship with IC in a ceremony at the academy.

The agreement would not have been possible had it not been for the restructuring of a learning environment that was among New York City's worst just seven years ago. Once plagued by low test scores, student violence, and poor faculty morale, the former Intermediate School Number 10 has flourished under the FDA banner. The academy bases its success on a singular mission -- that all of its students get into college, regardless of the hardships they may face. Excellence is expected of and delivered by a student body that draws the majority of its members from single-parent homes. Many students live in poverty and in areas where drugs and crime are a way of life. Still, more than 95 percent of the school's 1997 graduates went on to college, and that percentage is expected to grow with this year's class.

The FDA success story has not gone unnoticed -- a 60 Minutes segment on the school and its founder, Lorraine Monroe, brought serious courtship of the school by colleges, universities, and corporations eager to share the spotlight. The 1996 show also prompted a visit by Pat Tempesta, program coordinator for teacher education in the College's School of Humanities and Sciences.

"Pat Tempesta asked questions and recognized that what happens here isn't exactly a miracle," says Heather McDaniel, an FDA college adviser. "It's the result of a lot of hard work by the faculty, staff, and students."

FDA principal Gregory Hodge says that Ithaca College's long-term commitment to the school -- and to inner-city education in general -- set it apart. "We've been working with them for the past two years, and we're delighted with the experience and opportunities they've brought to us."

The relationship began to take serious shape at the conclusion of a spring 1997 trip to the Ithaca campus by FDA staff and faculty. "By that time," Tempesta says, "the energy and enthusiasm to continue the relationship were palpable." The relationship continued to grow last fall, when a group of Ithaca College faculty and staff traveled to the academy for two days of meetings, seminars, classroom observations, and presentations.

"What the College has done for us would be a lot for any college, especially one that's four hours away," says McDaniel. "They didn't have to come here, but they did -- because they believe in us." Administrators at both FDA and IC say their formal ties will enhance educational opportunity at both institutions. Already the College has provided FDA with equipment and training in the school's television studio and has outfitted a new journalism laboratory. Future partnership links are being forged in business education, health education, and computer technology. The College is also funding scholarships for junior and senior FDA students to participate in summer programs here. In turn, FDA presents a new opportunity for Ithaca students wanting teaching experience in a multicultural setting. Two students who participated in FDA site visits over recent months have applied for full-time teaching positions at the school.

Some 50 Ithaca College administrators, faculty, staff, and students were on hand for the partnership ceremony and a day full of activities with FDA students. College representatives worked with the students in the new computer journalism lab to produce the first issue of a school newspaper; others assisted television students in videotaping the day's events. IC students led workshops in jazz and communications skills. FDA students spoke with College staff about issues related to affirmative action and Ithaca's educational opportunity programs. IC faculty members offered a writing workshop, a lecture on the causes of World War I, and a session on cardiac fitness.

Ithaca College president Peggy R. Williams told FDA students gathered for the partnership ceremony that the College intends to maintain a presence at the school. "One of our goals is to help you meet one of yours: to get every one of you into college."

FDA students like junior Africah Harrigan expect to capitalize on the new opportunities available to her and her classmates. "I want to be a news reporter because a news reporter travels," says Harrigan, who spent the better portion of the day interviewing students and administrators in the television studio. "I thought this was a wonderful experience."

Parents, too, say the partnership can only benefit their children. "We're trying to keep our kids on the right track," says FDA Parent-Teacher Association president Ernest T. Clayton. "If Ithaca College can help us do that, then we're very, very happy."  

Photos by Don Hamerman

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Web pages created by Andrejs Ozolins. 19 Oct 1999