Outstanding Private High School
Tucked behind trees not far from bustling Borough Hall Park are the stately Gothic revival windows of The Packer Collegiate Institute. In front of the school, three bikes of varying sizes are chained to the shiny black iron fence. A single stroller is parked. A large maroon and white “Packer” flag flutters above the entrance, right next to Old Glory.
Inside it’s lunchtime. A group of high schoolers sit together in a clump, their heavy backpacks strewn around. A girl walks through the spacious, art-filled Founder’s Hall in a black shirt and jeans with a lilac scarf wound loosely around her neck. Heavily framed portraits of the school’s founders hang on dark paneled-wood walls. At a round table in the library, near an enormous fireplace, five students stare intently at their laptop computer screens.
“I can tell it’s middle schoolers,” says our tour guide, senior Ali Salas, “because they’re using Macs. The
Upper School uses Dells.”
Packer Collegiate was among the forefront of New York City independent day schools to go wireless. The innovation certainly helps keep students in touch, like when Salas was able to reach a teacher at 9:30 p.m. to answer a question. But, as upper school head Susan Feibelman acknowledged, “It has its problem side. Teachers can feel they’re always ‘on.’”
Packer does not shy away from innovation and debate, and the school has always been progressive. Founded in 1845 as The Brooklyn Female Academy, it was the first independent school in Brooklyn.
The accessibility of staff and the mingling of younger and older students is intentional at Packer: this is perhaps most evident in the community center, an area where informal indoor space flows into a sunny, glassed-in Atrium and out into the leafy one-half-acre garden courtyard. All ages mingle in this lively gathering space. Packer prides itself on being “one school, one campus, all ages together,” Feibelman said. High school students readily approach their head of school as she walks through the halls, and teacher and administrators’ office doors are invitingly open. The entire 5th through 12th grade can gather in the chapel, a multi-purpose assembly room where students experience everything from guest speakers on Darfur to the music of the Packer Jam Society to mock presidential debates.
The TV shows Gossip Girl and Lipstick Jungle film on Packer’s lovely campus in the off-season, but the school steers far from that glitzy aesthetic. In June, Ali Salas, her twin sister Marcel, and their friend, senior Adeyemi Mchunguzi, were awarded the New York City Princeton Prize in race relations for their documentary, Sticks and Stone May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me?. They interviewed Packer students and faculty to explore the power of biased language, focusing on the “N-word” and the phrase
“That’s so gay.” The resulting 12-minute documentary was shown to Packer students and used as a starting point for discussion.
“It was a controversial topic,” Salas said, “but the administration was very supportive.”
“Diversity is really comprehensive here,” said Packer’s diversity coordinator, Martha Haakmat.
Representing a wide cross-section of students is not something a full-time teacher juggles on the side—“being in charge of all the assemblies that look diverse and all of the snapshots in the calendar,” she said. “Here we really try to not only talk about diversity, but to act on it and be role models.”
About 30 percent at Packer Collegiate are students of color. “We work not only for racial diversity, we work for economic diversity as well,” Feibelman said. A recent focus at Packer has been to increase the middle-class enrollment.
“We do it through financial aid,” she explained, “and we’re increasingly comfortable talking about it”—“it” being the issues of race, class and economics.
The school has two parent diversity groups and 10 student diversity clubs. As far as Gossip Girl co-opting the campus during the summer, Salas said there was some feeling of “retaliation among students who didn’t want Packer to be seen that way.” But the senior thought it was ultimately kind of cool: “My school’s on TV!”
The school offers a wide array of electives. In the art studio, light pours through multiple skylights onto easels and canvases below. Art students wear dark blue smocks and sport iPods. In a science class, five seniors cluster around a little mouse in the making: “His name is Herbie the Mousebot,” grins a six-foot-tall senior, flipping it over to show off the white rectangular “brain” underneath. Physics is taught first at Packer, then chemistry, then biology. This is in keeping with the “physics first movement,” which has been slowly catching on since 1990. It’s unusual to teach physics first, explains Salas, but physics provides a foundation for the other sciences. “Which, I mean, it works!” she shrugs amiably.
Students study world languages and use their acquired skills during trips to any number of places around the globe, from South Africa to Italy. Drama buffs can perform in the well-appointed theater: this year’s play is Animal Crackers and the spring musical will be Pippin. Students have opportunities to explore dance, to participate in a writing workshop-style English class or to pick from a wide range of other electives. In addition to the usual array of physical activities, Packer offers taekwondo, yoga and squash.
“One of the most incredible things I’ve experienced at Packer is the SAIL program,” Salas said.
SAIL stands for “Student Action Initiative and Leadership,” in which 10th graders spend four days performing on-site service in the community. At the end of our tour, we visit history and social sciences teacher George Snook.
“Listen up now,” he says to his class of 10 students, his glasses perched on the end of his nose. He’s getting them ready to answer a “document based question,” or DBQ, an activity in which students interpret the content of historical documents. “He elevates the level of expectation,” Salas said. “He’s not willing to lower them.”
We also checked out upper school art teacher Kenneth Rush, about whom Salas says: “He’s incredibly supportive. He makes everyone feel like an artist, no matter how bad they may be.”
Back in Founder’s Hall, we peruse the long list of upcoming college informational sessions. For Salas and her peers, college looms—as does, regrettably, the end of their Packer Collegiate days.
The Packer Collegiate Institute
170 Joralemon St.
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201
Dr. Bruce Dennis, Head of School
Susan Feibelman, Head of the Upper School
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