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Please don’t stop the music!
DOE wants to close Choir Academy, a Harlem institution, just when it’s getting back in tune
by Micah Landau | February 28, 2013 New York Teacher issue
Founded in 1993 by Walter J. Turnbull to provide a permanent home for his famous Boys Choir of Harlem, Choir Academy reflected the philosophy of its founder: that musical training instills in students the discipline and focus they need to succeed in school and in life.
In its heyday, the school was a beacon for the arts in education, drawing musically talented children from across the city who aspired to perform in its Boys Choir or its Girls Choir of Harlem.
Now 20 years later, the Harlem school is on Mayor Bloomberg’s list of 26 schools marked for closure after being driven into the ground by school administrators and the Department of Education, says Bertram Charlton, the school’s longtime chapter leader.
Until eight years ago, children had to audition for admission and their parents were interviewed. Admission to the school and especially acceptance into its main choir could be life-changing for students. The boys and young men in the Boys Choir had the chance to travel and perform abroad. In 1993, not long after moving to its current home on 127th Street in Harlem, the choir performed with Luciano Pavarotti in Central Park in front of an audience of 500,000. The Girls Choir, which began as an after-school program, made its concert debut just a few years later, in 1997, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
Charlton described the choir as a “carrot” for students at the school, which today serves grades 6-12. “It provided what was needed to maintain focus,” Charlton said.
Everything changed in 2006, when a dispute between Turnbull and the DOE led to the choir’s sudden eviction from the school.
“Everything was going well until they removed the choir from the school premises — the work staff, the music teachers who were not DOE employees,” Charlton said. “When they did that, the music director [Turnbull] suffered a stroke and died. He died from heartbreak, and everything started going downhill after that.”
The school eliminated musical auditions and parent interviews, and many students who have come to the school in recent years had no particular interest in music.
Miller Photography Choir Academy has also been crippled by a revolving door of principals — each of whom brought a different agenda. The school hit its lowest point under A. Ellen Parris, who served as principal for three years until she was removed from her position in December 2011. During her tenure, Charlton said, Choir Academy’s middle grades had no English teachers for more than a term, and the school had one after-school activity, a soccer club that Parris refused to support with school funds.
Not surprisingly, it was under Parris’ leadership that Choir Academy’s School Progress Report grade slipped from a B to a C and then, in the year before her removal, an F.
Melissa Vaughan, who succeeded Parris in February 2012, has “turned things around” in her year at the school, Charlton said, “but she inherited the previous principal’s work.”
Vaughan revived the practice of requiring students to audition for entry to the school as she sought to restore the school’s former luster as a magnet for arts education.
“She’s turned the school into an arts school with dance, vocals, instruments and fine arts,” Charlton said.
Elizabeth Porter, the president of the school’s parent association, said she almost pulled her daughter out of the school because of Parris but decided to keep her there when Vaughan took over.
“My daughter’s dream when she came in 6th grade was to be able to sing,” Porter said. “She wasn’t able to fulfill that dream until 9th grade, when Dr. Vaughan put auditions and the arts back into place so now children are getting to major in what they came to Choir to do.”
Unfortunately, Charlton noted, the F that the school received under Parris has provided the DOE with an excuse to shutter the school. Vaughan and the new initiatives she is bringing to the school have barely had a year to take root.
There is no doubt in Charlton’s mind that the revival of the school has begun. And yet, when the city’s Panel for Educational Policy meets on March 11, many expect it to rubber-stamp the mayor’s decision to close the school.
“The school has been a Harlem institution for 20 years where kids are provided with music outlets and where we have produced a lot of good citizens,” Charlton said. “This whole thing is about privatizing public education. They’re creating an underclass in this society.”