Building a School

| 30 Nov 2015 | 06:26

The city will welcome a new charter school next year. Its mission will be to teach students skills that transcend their classroom experience. The Social Arts Academy of New York City, which will serve sixth to 12th graders, is slated to open its doors in September of 2017. Its principal, Dru Collins, is already working to create an environment that graduates “social artists,” which he defines as people who “think creatively about the issues and problems in the world and come up with out-of-the-box solutions to them.” He has a vision that his students will emerge as community leaders, inspiring those around them to take action around issues of social justice and leave a lasting effect not just on our city, but throughout the world.

A Texas native with 11 years of experience working in urban educational settings, Collins always dreamed of opening his own school close to home. Then, while on vacation here in 2012, he became enamored with New York. He moved here three weeks later, and his aspiration is becoming a reality here in the city.

What experience in education did you gain once you got here?I worked at Peninsula Prep Charter in Far Rockaway, which was my first entrance into the charter world. Being from Texas, I didn’t really understand the geography of New York and didn’t understand that Far Rockaway was far away from the city. [Laughs] I was living in Bed-Stuy in a sub-leased situation and traveling every day out to Far Rockaway and it was a very long commute. I ended up switching jobs and working for the New York City Charter School Center. In that role, my job was being a service provider to all the charter schools in the city. I primarily worked with middle and high schools. For all grades six through 12, I provided support for their special education programming. I worked for the special-ed collaborative at the Charter Center and helped charter schools set up and maintain sustainable special education programming for their students with special needs.

I read on your website that in an early college charter school, students are more likely to graduate high school and complete a college degree. Why do you think that’s the case?We know this from research; the earlier you intervene, the more successful students will be. So if students need college readiness preparation, the earlier you give it to them, the more successful they’re going to be with because they have more time to develop those skills. We have a great partner, EDWorks, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks which is a nonprofit organization that has dedicated their time to creating these early college models across the nation. They have several high schools across the nation that they’ve created and a couple here in New York City. And in every one of those models, students are graduating in the 80th and 90th percentile range with college credit leaving high school, ready to go to work or to pursue higher education.

How many students at SAA do you estimate will be underprivileged? I really hope that they will be 100 percent of our population. That’s the purpose of us opening this school. We want to make sure that those particular students have an opportunity that they currently don’t have. However, because we are required by law to have the random lottery, we really don’t have control over their numbers. So the best way we can kind of force that to be is to locate the school in a neighborhood where those students live. One thing the charter law does allow for is that if you live in that area community school district, you do have a preference in the lottery. So those students have first dibs on these seats.

You’re looking to place the school on the Upper West Side or Harlem, right?Yes, we’re trying to get into Central Harlem, West Harlem or the Manhattan Valley area, which is right by the Frederick Douglass houses. Within Community School District 3, which is the Upper West Side, all the high schools are open citywide to applicants across the city and so all the specialized high schools get filled with not necessarily Community School District 3 residents. So students who live in this district end up having to travel outside of it to go to a quality school, so I would like to reverse that and give them one more option here in their backyard.

How does the process of securing a location work? It must be daunting.It’s very complicated. The first step is to reach out to the New York City Department of Education and ask them what space is available because they plan out two to three years in advance. At this point, we’ve reached out to them and have yet to have a meeting scheduled. I think they’re waiting for us to get word back from the authorizers on whether or not we can submit an application. We’re still in the early phases of submitting the charter application.

You’ve worked in urban schools for the past 11 years. What are the differences you’ve observed between those and ones located in the suburbs?It takes a lot of flexibility in an urban school because you’re working with a lot of intense needs and trying to give students the right amount of attention. You have so many needs present and the same amount of time and recourses as any other school. And in some cases, it’s not the same, it’s actually less because a lot of suburban schools have extra resources since the parents contribute to the school’s well-being. The other thing in the urban schools that I recognize is that many of our buildings are a lot older and that presents a unique challenge in keeping up with technology and making sure students are ready for real-world experience when they leave your school. Most people are not going to work in a building that does not have adequate internet service. That’s one of the things I find is a huge challenge in the urban schools, that the technology is not up to par when it comes to what is going to happen in the world of work.

To learn more about the school, visit