School Survival

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Students at a private school help design their curriculums

ALBANY -- Greg Henderson wanted to learn about astrophysics, so he told his teacher to design a class for him. The next week, he was talking string theory with his friends.

Henderson, 16, is a student at the Harriet Tubman Democratic High School, which is housed in a restored row home that is a rare bright spot on a South End street where many of the buildings were abandoned long ago. With just 17 students, Harriet Tubman is also an educational island that exists somewhere outside the public, charter and private school sphere.

The 4-year-old school offers perhaps the most unique educational experience in the region and is closer to home schooling than any traditional learning environment. Students jam on the house banjo or guitar and teach music theory in a basement classroom. The teens have a say in the hiring of staff and cleaning chores to perform at the end of every day. There are traditional classes, though none larger than 11 students, for those who want to pass the state's Regents tests, and then there are other courses that students help design based on their own interests.

"I feel responsible for my own education," said Henderson. "Instead of a teacher saying 'read this,' I feel compelled to learn."

There is only one full-time teacher, aided by volunteers, interns and part-time employees, and a student-to-staff ratio of 5 to 1. Any child struggling in a class works one-on-one with a tutor and, because the entire student body is smaller than the average class at Albany High, director Elizabeth Carivan says she knows each of their needs. Students are taught how, rather than merely what, to learn.

"We want them to be motivated to do things, not just because we tell them to do it," she said.

The school, which is in its fifth year and was recently accredited by the state Education Department, is looking to grow enrollment to 40, Carivan said. The "democratic education" philosophy means that students have a voice in school operations equal to that of the staff, and students of all ages learn together at their own pace with learning emphasized over assessment.

Full tuition is a mere $6,000, and 80 percent of the student body receives aid. The school, which grew from the Albany Free School, does not turn away students for financial reasons and has students who live around the corner as well as some who come in from the suburbs. Diversity at Harriet Tubman is not just a promise on a glossy brochure, but a lived experience, where a girl who lives in the South End and boy who lives in Colonie eat lunch of rice and beans at Frankie and Giovanni's bodega around the corner.

Colin Coon, 19, plans on becoming a pastor someday, so he created an internship for himself with a church leader. He has crafted his own curriculum at Harriet Tubman, where he is studying theater and religion, reading the bible and shadowing a pastor some days. He said the school was helping him get ready for the outside world by putting few boundaries on his learning.

While there are no grades and exams as part of the school, students prepare for the state standardized exams by learning how to take tests. Carivan said they've sent graduates to Clarkson University and Hudson Valley Community College. She admits the school is not for every student, but said it can transform those who thrive in an independent environment.

Harriet Tubman feels like a college classroom, or dorm, where small group discussions around a table is the primary teaching method, instead of an educator at a chalkboard. On a recent day, students in study hall were perched with laptops on a comfortable couch in the front room, next to the kitchen, while two others discussed the Cold War economy and the loss of European colonialism with University at Albany graduate student Laura Greco. Maps from old National Geographic magazines covered a hallway and a library is stuffed with donated novels and science books.

Harriet Tubman has become a refuge for students who couldn't thrive in traditional public schools, some of whom felt shoehorned into special education classes and branded by the label, Carivan said. Others, like Henderson, come because they couldn't stand being teased by their classmates every time they earned an "A."

Julie McDonald used to be disappointed every time she opened her daughter's Schenectady High report card. Her daughter, Samantha Bunch, was intelligent, but better at being the class clown than she was at taking tests. She said the small environment taught her daughter how to be accountable to herself, where teachers took the time to help Samantha explore the cause of her rebellious behavior rather than imposing strict rules to get her in line.

"This environment nurtures the individual, at the same time allowing them to tap into their intelligence," McDonald said.


Reach Scott Waldman at 454-5080 or by e-mail at

More information

The school will host an open house on February 19, from 1 to 4 p.m. at 59 Elizabeth St., Albany

To learn more, visit or call 320-8330.

How we learn

This story is the first of an occasional series on innovative teaching practices in the Capital Region.

Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: News on January 28, 2011 @ 12:29 AM

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