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Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III & Thurgood Marshall Academy
By Sybil Maimin

Harlem is experiencing a new Renaissance, and the 560 lucky middle and high school students who attend Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change (TMA) on West 135th Street are part of the altered landscape. Responding to a critical need (parents in Central Harlem routinely sent their children to other parts of the city for a decent education), in 1992, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, the influential, can-do pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, answered a call from the New York City Board of Education and New Visions for Public Schools to collaborate on a new, quality public school. The Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), an arm of the church, agreed to become sponsor. Moving from place to place, the school floundered in its first years and was on the verge of closing when a plan was approved to build a permanent home, a new, state-of-the-art facility on the site of the former “Small’s Paradise,” the legendary jazz club of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. Opened with great hope and anticipation in 2004, the first new public school in Harlem in fifty years, TMA is about history, possibilities, community, and achievement. A symbol of success in the long struggle for equality and opportunity, the school welcomes students and visitors to its lobby with a large mural featuring portraits and words from some iconic figures in the fight for civil rights as well as a tribute to its namesake, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, that reads, he “had the capacity to imagine a different world, the imagination and capacity to believe that such a world was possible.” Nearby, a wall hanging titled “Reflections on Leadership,” composed of handwritten thoughts such as “Believe in Yourself and Everyone Will Too,” the work of the class of 2007, inspires and instructs. A list of student names with grade point averages and honor roll status is proudly and prominently displayed as is a closed circuit TV screen that flashes news of college acceptances.

Principal Dr. Sandye Poitier Johnson speaks of the great energy and dedication that go into creating the warm, inviting learning environment and sense of community that characterize the school. Teachers come to work early and stay late. Assistant Principal Bryant Harris says, “I’m here at 6:30 because I like being here.” The faculty union representative has never filed a grievance: “We work things out as peers.” Another instructor affectionately remarks, “Teachers really get their hands dirty. That’s what draws us.” Senior student Kendon Smith-Holder is eagerly awaiting college acceptances, yet admits, “I love the school and hate to leave…Everyone here knows you personally and cares about you.” The principal, seen by staff as a “visionary,” lives in the community (“My students are my neighbors”), and explains TMA is unique as an urban public institution of learning because of its holistic approach. She recalls early struggles “to get the trust of the kids, to let them know we would help them, that we would make sure they have a plan after graduation and have options.” In choosing its students, the school looks for local applicants “who want to do well.” Active parental involvement is strongly encouraged and community ties fostered. Following the holistic model, students receive personal treatment from a full-service Wellness Clinic run by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital that includes medical, dental, and mental health professionals. Tests are performed, immunizations and shots administered, and medicines dispensed. A guidance counselor, mediation office, and two college advisors serve student needs. SAT preparation and exploratory trips to colleges are offered. A full range of after-school activities is available.

The school building is spacious, bright, and airy with windowed classrooms on the perimeter surrounding large, open communal spaces, or hubs. Each floor is painted a different bright color with lockers to match. Smartboards and laptop computers are widely used. A comfortable library with 20,000 books, state-of-the-art science labs, computer workstations, and multimedia equipment keep TMA in the twenty-first century. To honor its predecessor at the site, the school cafeteria is called “Small’s Café” and is decorated appropriately with a colorful mural showing great African-American artists such as Billy Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong. Students stand out in smart uniforms of bright red sweaters (with small TMA logos) and black trousers or skirts. A sense of safety, dignity, respect, and discipline pervades.

TMA “is not successful with all our kids,” concedes Johnson, citing poor preparation in lower grades. Abyssinian Development Corporation supports a local Head Start and elementary school and hopes to create an educational continuum in which teachers “scaffold,” or communicate curriculum needs with peers in lower grades. The principal has ambitious goals for her students. “A lot of our children have forgotten how to dream,” she says. While college admissions are very good at the school, she wants to “aggressively move to make more students more college-ready” by increasing the number who work toward Regent’s diplomas. Johnson understands that education beyond twelfth grade may not be appropriate for everyone, but she wants those with the ability to go to college to tackle rigorous studies, succeed, and go on to a better life.#



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