On September 20, 1970, a new type of public high school opened its doors for the first time. For on this very week, the Street Academy of Albany became the city’s newest public education center.
The following is a history of the Street Academy of Albany (1970-1992) and Harriet Gibbons High School (1992-2006 HS, 2005-2010 as 9th grade prep).
Street Academy of Albany (1970-1992)
They say you must tell the story, or the story will be forgotten as if it never happened. So let this webpage serve as a link to the history of a unique and important high school in Albany’s history.
Street Academy was originally formed in 1970 by a partnership between the Albany Chapter of the Urban League and an order of nuns from Kenwood Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1970. Kenwood Academy, a novitiate for over 100 years, doesn’t exist any more – the school merged with an Episcopalian educational institution, and the grounds on which the original convent sat is now the Doane Stuart School.
Under the leadership of Sister Maryellen Harmon, the nuns formed the “Street Academy,” based on a similarly-named school in New York City – essentially a “storefront university”, an “alternative education center” for troubled youth. When Street Academy opened in the fall of 1970, it was located in the rectory of St. John’s Church on 157 Franklin Street in Albany (today now known as St. John’s – St. Ann’s Church). Midway through the school year, however, the program expanded to the point where the Street Academy moved to the Teen Center in Albany’s South End. Read an interview with the founder of Street Academy, Sister Maryellen Harmon, by clicking this link.
The Kenwood Academy of the Sacred Heart nuns who worked at Street Academy during that time period included:
- 1970-71: Sister Ann Montgomery, teacher; Sister Maryellen Harmon, Principal; Sister Janice McNabb, teacher part-time
- 1971-72: Sister Maryellen Harmon, Principal; Sister Ann Montgomery; Sister Harriet Harson; Sister Alice Dunham
- 1972-73: Sister Alice Dunham; Sister Ann Montgomery; Sister Harmon was elected to Albany Public School Board, while Robert Peterkin took over running the school for several years.
- 1973-74: Sister Alice Dunham; Sister Maryellen Harmon, Teacher Development; Sister Ann Montgomery teaching.
- 1974-75: Sister Alice Dunham, who was also teaching at the local jail.
In the fall of 1971, Street Academy relocated again, this time to 55 Columbia Street, which at that time was the main offices of Albany’s branch of the Urban League. The school was located in the basement of 55 Columbia Street, with extra classrooms and meeting rooms situated throughout the building.
Street Academy operated on 55 Columbia Street in downtown Albany from 1970 to 1973, when the Albany City School District incorporated Street Academy into the District, and relocated the program to 165 Clinton Avenue, at the site of the former Arbor Hill Elementary School (originally built in the 1890’s as Public School No. 7). The Clinton Avenue facility was built in 1885, and was originally used as an elementary school until the new Arbor Hill Elementary School opened in the 1970’s.
Bob Peterkin was the school’s principal from 1971 to 1974; he would later leave Street Academy to accept a position at one of Boston’s largest high schools. Today, he is a faculty professor at Harvard University. After Peterkin, Harriet Gibbons became the school’s next principal under the Albany City School District annexation; she would serve in that position from 1974 to 1977. After she retired as principal, she would, two years later, serve on the Albany Board of Education, the first woman of color elected to this position.
In 1977, Street Academy’s principal was Lillian Tillman, a soft-spoken but no-nonsense leader who was fiercely loyal to her staff and to her students. Don’t get me wrong – she would get on your case for everything from wearing hats in class to disrespecting your teachers – but if you ever had a problem with your parents, or your guardians, or your probation officers, she would stick up for you if you were in the right.
In 1981, the Street Academy made its biggest splash in the Capital District with a three-week undefeated run on the WRGB television series “Answers Please.” They defeated Albany Academy, Keveny Academy of Cohoes, and St. Mary’s Academy of Hoosick Falls.
165 Clinton Avenue was woefully inadequate for any sort of public high school, and for years there were proposals to relocate Street Academy to another facility. In the spring of 1987, a proposal was floated to move the school to Lincoln Park, at the location of the Sunshine School, a facility used at that time for educating the handicapped. That proposal died when neighborhood residents of Lincoln Park threatened to protest the school relocation. So the school stayed at 165 Clinton Avenue for another year.
That same year, the school proposed renaming the school “Langston Hughes High School,” in tribute to the Harlem Renaissance poet whose works were studied by Street Academy students for years. That proposal was rejected as well.
By 1990, the 165 Clinton Avenue structure was showing its 100-year-old age, and the Albany City School District proposed merging Street Academy with another alternative school, the 8-10th grade “School 21.” Nothing became of it. In December 1990, the Albany City School District proposed splitting Street Academy in two – the 9th and 10th grade students would take classes at Albany’s Adult Learning Center on Western Avenue; while the 11th and 12th graders would be merged back into Albany High School. Two months later, the plan was pitched to have an “Alternative Magnet High School,” which later morphed into once again merging School 21 and Street Academy into one unit.
Finally, the 1991-92 school year began with a merged School 21 and Street Academy (operating under the “Street Academy” name), working in a new location, the Adult Learning Center on 27 Western Avenue. Lillian Tillman-DeWitt retired, to be replaced by former School 21 head Edward Trant. In 1992, after Harriet Gibbons passed away, Street Academy was renamed Harriet Gibbons High School in her honor and memory.
Harriet Gibbons High School (1991-2006)
Harriet Gibbons Ninth Grade Academy (2006-2010)
The time at 27 Western Avenue for Harriet Gibbons High School was brief; eventually the school moved back to Arbor Hill in 1994, this time at 400 Sheridan Avenue, at the site of the former Our Lady of Angels campus. Gerald Guzik became the school’s principal in 1995, and remained in that position for the next decade.
Harriet Gibbons High School also adopted a distinctive logo, an eight-pointed star called a “compass rose,” with the motto,
“When you catch a ride on the tip of a star your dreams come true.”
400 Sheridan Avenue was actually leased by the Albany City School District from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, and stayed as Harriet Gibbons High School’s home until 2002. At that time, the School District purchased the building and demolished it, to build the Sheridan Preparatory Academy on its grounds. With nowhere else to go, Harriet Gibbons High School was relocated to 75 Watervliet Avenue, at the site of the former Carnevale’s Supermarket, where it remained until 2010.
After the 2005-06 school year, completing the high school’s 35th year of existence, Harriet Gibbons ceased being a 9-12 grade high school. At the time, the Albany City School District tried to shut down several crumbling or underperforming schools, and one of them was Phillip Livingston Magnet Academy, a 7-9 grade school that was too big to be a middle school and wasn’t being used as a high school any more. After much legal maneuvering, PLMA was kept – but Harriet Gibbons High School was changed into a 9th grade troubled youth preparatory school, preparing disadvantaged kids for 10th grade at Albany High School.
Four years later, the Albany City School District, citing decreasing attendance, chose to close Harriet Gibbons High School. The decision came at a school board vote on July 15, 2010. Forty years of that school’s service to the troubled and disadvantaged youth of Albany’s inner city ended on that day.
Map showing location of all buildings from 1970 to 2010