Before literary legend and longtime New York City public school teacher Frank McCourt died this past summer, efforts were underway to create a school in his honor. Now that plan has become a reality. On Oct. 6, the Department of Education announced that the Frank McCourt High School will open in fall 2010 as part of the Brandeis campus, on West 84th Street.
The small, selective school will eventually serve 432 students when all high school grades are added during the 2013-14 school year. McCourt was best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes, but he also taught for 29 years, mostly at Stuyvesant High School.
As Brandeis is phased out and replaced with smaller schools, the McCourt School will be the selective neighborhood high school that many residents have been clamoring for. Three other schools have already opened on the Brandeis campus this fall: Global Learning Collaborative, focusing on international and multicultural learning; the Urban
Assembly School for Green Careers, which prepares students for the workforce and college; and Innovation Diploma Plus, a transfer school for students who have struggled elsewhere.
The McCourt School will open with a freshman class of 108 and add a grade each year. According to the department, there will be no geographic preference for District 3 students. But advocates hope that its size, focus and curriculum will make it an attractive option for neighborhood students, among others.
Marc Landis is a local Democratic district leader who has been part of the effort to create the school. He described walking past the Brandeis campus with his young daughter and watching her grow excited by the idea of a neighborhood school with a focus on writing.
“It definitely doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t be limited to the Upper West Side,” he said. “But isn’t it every parent’s dream to be able to send their kid to great school a few blocks away?”
When the department announced in February that Brandeis would be phased out, residents and elected officials, led by Council Member Gale Brewer, formed an ad hoc committee supporting the creation of the McCourt School. Members included noted education writer Clara Hemphill and West Side parent Tom Allon, president and CEO of the company that publishes West Side Spirit and a former colleague of McCourt’s at Stuyvesant High School.
“The most exciting part of it is was a group of West Side- and Harlem-based parents who came together. It’s a real ground-up school,” Brewer said. “I don’t think this has happened in a long time.”
A Facebook “cause” website supporting the high school attracted nearly 600 members and kept the public abreast of it’s progress.
“The process was highly collaborative and drew on the insight and effort of local parents, elected officials and more,” said Micah Lasher, director for public affairs at the department. “We think the product is going to be outstanding.”
At a public meeting in June, some expressed concern that the school’s “selective” nature would lead to de facto segregation. But supporters noted that diversity would be a cornerstone of the admissions policy. Hemphill, who has visited hundreds of schools while writing her series of popular books, says she hopes the school will be able to serve a neglected population.
“There aren’t a lot of attractive options for kids who aren’t going to go to Stuyvesant but don’t need remediation either, and I hope this can help with that,” she said.
Admission criteria and curriculum specifics will likely be defined once a principal is selected. But the school’s educational theme, according to Lasher, has already been determined: communication and civic engagement. It’s fitting tribute to McCourt, who was an active participant in conversations about education.
“It’s so sad that he died, but I’m glad that he knew we were planning the school in his name,” Brewer said. “I think he was one of the best teachers ever, and I hope the school will live up to his standards.”
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