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Street Academy of Albany
Harriet Gibbons High School

Interview with Sister Mary Ellen Harmon

Sister Mary Ellen Harmon, who originally taught at the Kenwood Academy of the Sacred Heart, helped originally create Street Academy (Harriet Gibbons High School) in 1970. The following are her memories of the early years of the school.

We had a lot of help putting the school together. I had some tremendously gifted lay people involved, because there were all these young men and women on the streets of Albany's impoverished neighborhoods that needed an education. One teacher actually gave up his doctoral program and helped me work on putting the school together - once Street Academy was up and running, he went to England and started a similar school there. We had sisters of other orders working with us on the school, as well as sisters of our own order. The cooperation between all these people was the key factor in Street Academy's initial success.

I also had the support of the black community with me. There were seven different organizations in the inner city, including The Brothers, who wanted to see something done for the community, for the boys and girls in need of an education, but could not work with the rules of the public school system. Those kids needed a different kind of teaching and they needed their own gifts recognized and used. That was the feeling, the thought, the motivation behind it. One of my first hires used to fight in the Golden Gloves competitions, and he was also a tremendous basketball player. He went out into the streets with his basketball and started shooting hoops in the inner-city playgrounds and vacant lots, and first thing you knew, he was surrounded by boys - and he would convince them to join Street Academy.

There were people that would not leave these kids with the failures they had with the public school system, so many of them who came to us said they had "essence diplomas." It looks like they moved from class to class from graduation, but they didn't have a credit to bless themselves. When we got through with these kids, they were able to handle a high school curriculum and graduated with flying colors. We didn't graduate anybody who didn't deserve it.

Our first location, the NAACP offered us their storefront on Pearl Street. But we quickly outgrew it, and I went to Mayor Corning and told him my dilemma, and he gave me the keys to the recreation center they had just opened, and we could use it from 8am to 3pm every day - but we had to clear out by 3pm so that it could be used for its original purposes. That went on for a while, and then we went into the rectory of St. John's Church on Franklin Street. The poor priests had to move upstairs and give us room. We moved into another building - I don't remember how exactly, we had a board but not much money, and we had a space that was wide open, it had no walls, it had been an IRS government building. The students themselves built the walls and partitions. That was the end of my first year.

Bob Peterken was the next person to took forward, and I became his curriculum director. We had 4,500 square feet of space, but we had no furniture and no walls, but one of the things the IRS left behind was a big safe for which they no longer had the key. One of our students were able to crack open the safe - there was really nothing in it - and we were able to keep our recorders and electronic equipment there. I gave the student who cracked the safe the responsibility to take care of teh equipment in the safe.

We had all of the usual classes of a high school - I taught biology and advanced math, trigonometry and so on, and someone else taught English and one person taught psychology. It wasn't your normal "you have to take this first course and then you could take that course." If you passed the test every six weeks, you were in business and moved forward. There were a number of students that had difficulties learning to read, and so there was special divisions of special materials and studies for them.

All of the materials were begged and borrowed from one school or another. The second year, we wrote a proposal, possibly under Title II, we received a grant, which was a tremendous help. Two of our faculty members received checks from the Albany City School District under Title I, but since we had seven faculty members, the two teachers endorsed their checks and the money was divided among the seven. That actually worked out.

The kids were really wonderful. We didn't have many rules - when I hired a teacher who wanted to teach a particular subject, I asked what do you want to teach and what level, when I knew that, I let them do it. When a student came to a school, I would say you have the first week to visit the classrooms of any and all the teachers you want to before you decide which one you want for a homeroom. They had some very good classes - some of the kids were just learning to read, others could read but were dropouts from school, and we had five other sisters besides myself assisting with the classes, they came one by one. We had a good group of lay teachers who were very good, because they were teaching something they wanted to teach, and not a stupid textbook that bored them to death. We honored the desires of the students and what they wanted to take, we honored the desires of the teachers and what they wanted to teach, and it was a match. I tried to make sure that the requirements of New York State were fulfilled for a diploma.

I can't remember the young man's name, he came to me with no credits at all and should haver been in his junior year of HS and should be, he was in the lowest class when he came to us, meaning his English was poor, he couldn't read very well. Two years later, by the time he graduated, he had written the winning essay, first place, for the National Council of Teachers of English that the city had every spring. He was also elected to the student body.

After the first year, I handed the school over to Bob Peterken as principal. I came back fairly regularly as curriculum director, because the school was still in its infancy. Bob handled the school very well, that was my particular job. The next two years, I came in a few times to do an in-service workshop for the teachers, but by the 4th year, I ran for a place on the public school board, and we got - from the public school system - that Street Academy would be a public school, but that it would always have the right to choose its head and faculty members, and to have it remain autonomous with the kind of curriculum that we had always started.

After I got my doctorate, I went out to Detroit to be superintendent of the Catholic schools out there. It was a tremendous gift to have principals at Street Academy bwho wanted to be there, teachers who wanted to be there and be able to understand and help the students who wanted to be there.

The original idea for Street Academy came when I visited New York City the year before, and saw what the storefront universities and street schools were doing down there. Each one of those schools in New York City were sponsored by one corporation or another, so they had no problem with money - their problem was that there wasn't enough space for the schools. It was a good learning experience, I knew what I was dealing with when I came to Albany to start a school.

One student came to us, as many did, illiterate - he left with flying colors and a diploma. I was undertaking to teach him very basic mathematics, and I started with a measuring tape. He kept handing me the business end of the measuring tape and held the zero end, then he expected me to give him the proper measurements from the business end of the tape. He's smart enough to try to con me out of the right answer. That isn't to say that we didn't have a few problems up and down - the rule was, if you got into trouble with somebody, you'd be out of school for a week. And they didn't want to be out of school.

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