It’s been only three months since Manhattan Early College School for Advertising opened its doors to its first freshman class. But in that short time, MECA has evolved into a hive of academic rigor and creative engagement, pulsing with activity. It’s a busy place—and unlike any other high school in New York City.
MECA’s unique educational model was evident to visitors from BMCC who spent a day at the school recently, talking with students and teachers and sitting in on classes.
The most important difference is MECA’s hybrid nature: Where traditional high schools offer a four-year curriculum, the MECA program spans six years, enabling students to earn both a Regents diploma and an associate degree from BMCC—free of cost.
“MECA isn’t just a new school but a new model for education,” the principal, Dr. Matthew Tossman, told the visitors. “The students enter as high school freshman and leave six years later as college graduates.”
As its name suggests, MECA is designed around advertising and media, offering majors in three areas—arts, multimedia and advertising/marketing. But Tossman was quick to note that its appeal to students transcends those industries.
“Our association with BMCC and our amazing partnerships with the media and advertising industries sets them up for success in whatever field they go into,” he said.
During a lunchtime break, MECA freshman Dominique told the BMCC visitors that she’d been drawn to a career in advertising for as long as she could remember.
“Every time I saw a TV commercial or passed a billboard, I’d think, ‘I want to be part of creating that,’” she said. “That’s what attracted me to MECA.”
Her classmate Jonathan offered a somewhat different slant on MECA. He plans to become a landscape architect, a profession far removed from advertising and media.
“Being a landscape architect requires drawing skills and the ability to think critically, and both get a lot of emphasis here,” Jonathan said.
“I’m still not 100% sure that landscape architecture is what I want to do—but whatever career I wind up choosing, MECA’s association with BMCC will put me a big step ahead of the game, since I’ll graduate with an associate degree and no college debt.”
Another student, Stephanie, said she was looking forward to an entrepreneurial career. “I want to own a salon—but I’m also open to working in media and advertising,” she said.
“I came here with high expectations and they’ve been totally exceeded. If there’s something in one of your classes you don’t understand, you can always get extra help—the teachers are always available.”
A 30-second exercise
Importantly, not all of the learning at MECA takes place within the formal curriculum. Every teacher meets with a small group of students three or four times a week to talk about things typically outside the scope of traditional classroom content.
“The idea is for us to get to know our students better and to help them learn about socio-emotional growth and relationships,” said English Language Arts teacher Katie Youell. As her small advisory group settled down, she gave them an assignment.
“Take 30 seconds and think about someone in your life who you get along with really well and what’s so great about that relationship,” Youell said. “Then we’ll sit and share out.”
While the students reflected in silence, Youell offered her thoughts on MECA’s advisory sessions, which complement students’ academic learning and “help them learn about community building and acquire organizational skills.”
Those are clearly major priorities at MECA. “Our teachers work really hard to make sure classes are engaging and rigorous,” Tossman noted.
“There’s a tremendous emphasis on hands-on participation in every class, and the students get to wrestle with some challenging concepts.”
In teacher Lora Morgenstern’s Introduction to Advertising and Media class, students analyzed an ad campaign for a retail clothing chain, trying to decode what was being said—and, just as importantly, what was being left unsaid.
“Even at the ninth-grade level, the students are addressing complex issues—such as ‘who is the target demographic? What kinds of messaging are most effective in reaching that demographic?’” Morgenstern said.
“The right mindset”
“We get a solid academic education at MECA, but at the same time, Ms. Morgenstern is teaching us about what advertising agencies will expect of us,” said Nathan, a student in her class. “When I’m ready to enter the field, I’ll already have the right mindset.”
As Julius Dunn II explained it, “MECA is designed to expose students to both the foundations and the nuances of advertising and media.”
Dunn, who is the industry education liaison for the American Association of Advertising Agencies—better known as “the Four As”—is, in many ways, the face of advertising for MECA’s students.
“My job is to provide an industry connection for all curricular initiatives and to facilitate anything related to mentorship, internships, workshops and work-based learning.”
In teacher Carroll Sun’s Visual Thinking Lab, students were busily constructing zentangles—“abstract drawing using repeated patterns,” as one girl, Ocean, explained it. “The idea is to include the elements of art in each piece,” classmate Paul told the visitors.
Another classmate, Cameron, noted that the dominant elements in his zentangle were organic shapes and complementary colors. “It’s a great way to design your own style,” he said.
An hour after the last classes of the day had ended, MECA’s classrooms, offices and learning labs seemed as busy as ever. Students were meeting with teachers and mentors, taking part in extracurricular activities and clearly enjoying themselves.
“It’s amazing,” said Tossman. “We’ve been in existence only a short time but we’ve built a real community here.”