Hard Lessons

You don’t want to be in a middle school when the news bears down like an early-spring hurricane ripping through a beach town. If you happen to be hanging out in a typical sort of public school, stocked with a hopeful crew of eighth-graders, anywhere from a quarter to almost all the students will have taken the entrance exam for the elite, so-called science schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. Now along comes heartbreak day, when most – more than 10,000 – will learn they haven’t made the cut.

Some principals try to contain the public histrionics by notifying students individually of their scores, but others just try to shift the mess off-campus by divulging the results as late as possible on a Friday. “And we still have to spend a week rehabilitating these kids, they’re so devastated,” one West Side middle-school principal told me. “The crying, the hysteria, the ‘I’m not worth it,’ the ‘I’m no good.’ It’s the worst week of the year around here.”

Why so much angst about not making it into three admittedly superior schools out of an astonishingly varied 219 public high schools and high-school-like programs available to the adolescents of New York? It’s not as if choice consists of “Stuyvesant or the army,” as one eighth-grader melodramatically sketched his options for me.

It’s just that “the drop-off is so severe between the best and the rest,” as an English teacher in Queens noted, when you compare the 96 percent-or-better Regents graduation rates at Stuyvesant, Science, and the equally elite Townsend Harris (a Queens school that chooses students by their records instead of their test scores) with the graduation rates at most neighborhood schools. In fact, some schools grant virtually no Regents degrees.

But there’s more: The schools with rigorous academic programs that are emerging as strong alternatives to stressed neighborhood high schools are bombarded by applicants, with ten kids fighting for every seat. And parents who assume city high schools work like colleges – giving the most academically advanced students the best shot – face a rude awakening. An admissions quota system designed to create a more equitable system overall actually works against the most accomplished students by severely limiting the number of high-performers that some sought-after schools can accept.

In fact, it’s not unusual for better students to be rejected by all the schools of their choice. Last week, the mother of an East Side eighth-grader who has a 97 average but didn’t get into a selective school found out he was also rejected by all of his other choices. “When he didn’t make La Guardia, he put his head in my lap and he cried, bitterly, like a little kid. But when he came home yesterday with the letter, he said to me, ‘I’ve been rejected eleven times.’ He’s a very serious kid, and he can’t really believe this yet. I think he’s in mourning.”

If it weren’t for the quotas, given the way smart kids are trying to vote with their feet, the city could have several more superschools on its brag list tomorrow, with no shortage of qualified students to fill the classrooms. Take Manhattan’s tiny Baruch College Campus High School, which is so young (less than a year old), so barely established, that the sleek, high-rise chambers where its 100 young scholars read Roman history by day actually revert back to college classrooms at night. The school’s small but intensely ambitious, self-critical founding staff concocted an all-Regents, all-the-time curriculum that pushes writing and one-on-one teaching, in which every student pursues a weekly literary correspondence with a teacher. The school was just two months old when it came time for prospective freshmen to turn in their high-school applications last fall. Even so, word was out among Manhattan guidance counselors, who pushed it hard; some 1,394 students bid for next year’s approximately 100 freshman openings.

More than a third of the applicants – 553 – came from among what high-school admissions officers define as the city’s top talent pool, based on their reading scores. Another 878 came from a group the Board of Education expansively defines as the “middle,” and 63 applicants came from the lowest-scoring readers, those below the 16th percentile nationally.

“That is some applicant group,” says the school system’s longtime director of automated admissions, Robert Klein, after pulling Baruch’s figures from his foot-thick computer data file on this year’s 90,000 high-school applicants. If it was able to assemble a class that reflected its applicants, Klein said, “it could be a powerful alternative to Stuyvesant.”

But the citywide admissions policy doesn’t allow that to happen. To ensure that no student, regardless of his record, is cut off from the best high schools, Baruch, a so-called Education-Option, or Ed-Opt, school, must accept as many applicants – 16 out of every 100 – from among the lowest achievers as it does from among the top achievers, defined this year by the Board of Education as students who score at the 79th percentile or better on standardized reading tests. The remaining 68 come from the middle – students whose reading scores fall between the 78th and the 16th percentile. The upshot: At hot schools like Baruch, the least accomplished students have the best chance at getting in.

School administrators argue that there are other places in this vast system for bright students: honors programs within zoned schools, and a few schools that screen all students for academic excellence. The problem is that most of those are also beseiged by good students. Most of the 82 new schools that have emerged out of the small-school movement are not screened. Like Baruch in District 2 and Beacon in the West Side’s District 3 or the High School of Environmental Studies (which got eight times more applications from high-achieving students than it did from low-achieving ones), they’re Ed-Opt.

Middle-class parents who’ve been successful at getting their kids into good elementary and middle schools – and who believe their kids’ work should be rewarded – feel especially betrayed by the system. It violates their sense of fair play. “For the struggling middle-class family that has an average bright kid, there’s no safety net,” complained Michelle Daniels, co-president of the Parents Association at Robert F. Wagner Middle School on the East Side, and herself a city teacher.

But architects of the choice plan argue that what makes public education public is that the playing field is level. No matter how poorly a student has done in school, he is never cut off from an opportunity to do better. “We believe that all children should have access to every program,” says Board of Education executive in charge of high schools Dr. Margaret Harrington, “and that every school should educate all children.”

The policy reflects a decision that the city’s interest in not conceding a large proportion of its best students to private or suburban schools is secondary to the urgent challenges in a school system where 40 percent of entering freshmen are over-age and underprepared. To get at that group, Dr. Harrington argues, schools must team strugglers up with bright kids who can help pull them along. If schools overall are to improve, she says, “you don’t talk about your best and brightest. You talk about your bottom… . As you raise your bottom, everyone goes up.”

But tell that to a kid who consistently pulled A’s and B’s in middle school but has been passed over by his top-choice school in favor of a D student.

“My guidance counselor told me I was too smart to apply to easy schools, and now look what happened. I think I made a mistake,” a devastated Melissa Herrera said last week when she got back her application form marked not accepted by all eight schools she applied to. Now she’s headed to her zoned Bronx high school (her family is unable to finance her escape into a parochial school), which graduated less than a third of its senior class last year. Melissa is the quintessential B student who can’t get a break, with grades hovering right around 80 at her Morrisania middle school.

For the thousands of students who memorized their math texts (or at least tried to) but didn’t make Stuyvesant or its ilk, seeing lesser students rewarded while they’re shut out of even their back-up schools can have a crushing impact. But the reverberations go beyond individuals. These are the tales that ripple through circles of public-school parents, driving families directly to Milburn and Chappaqua. When good kids are shot down, anger becomes fury in families who are stressed by the entrance exams, worried by their local school’s metal detectors, resentful that their children are being exposed to so much rejection.

“Is it easier for a bad student to get into a very hot, wonderful school? The truth would be yes,” says one principal who, for obvious reasons, does not want to be named. “And when good students don’t get into any of their choices, and they’re saying, ‘You told me to be at school on time, you told me to work harder,’ then yes, you are sitting there with egg on your face. You really don’t know what to say to them.”

The problem may be, in part, a cultural mismatch. In New York, perhaps the most unforgiving professional meritocracy in America, high schools exist in a philosophical atmosphere that’s from another planet. As if to compensate for the brutal winnowing of tender talent by the elite selective schools, the rest of the system is determinedly anti-elite.

The current Ed-Opt formula went into place eleven years ago when the board decided that, with few exceptions, it would not allow new schools, old schools, striving schools of any kind to try to marshal scholastic talent. Before that, schools were allowed to set their own admissions criteria, and the hodgepodge of screening rules favored savvy, mostly white, middle-class families. A coalition of reformers representing students who fared poorly under those old, more subjective criteria persuaded the board to make Ed-Opt schools more hospitable to students at risk of flunking or dropping out.

High schools of “choice,” or choice programs within schools, could no longer hand-pick all their students. To further cleanse the process of favoritism and string-pulling, half of those chosen from along the 16-68-16 curve would be “randomed in” by a Board of Education computer manned by the aforementioned Klein. It was decided that only the top 2 percent of public-school eighth-graders would be guaranteed admission to their first-choice Ed-Opt school.

Those changes, along with the blossoming of alternative schools, have cut in half the number of kids shut out of all their choice schools. Last year, Klein says, only 10,000 were in Melissa Herrera’s discouraging situation – sent to their zoned schools or to undersubscribed theme schools whose themes did not interest them.

Still, that’s of little comfort to those 10,000, especially if they have been high-achievers in middle school. Larry Hirsch, who ran the East Side Middle School for gifted students before becoming a Yonkers principal, says, “This is what happened to the kids in my school. The 98 percenters, the really top-notch kids who were good test takers, got into Stuyvesant or Science or Tech, and another four or six would go to Townsend Harris. But the kids who suffered were the hardworking, bright, wonderful, to-die-for kids with the 85 or 90 averages.” As soon as the first-round results on high-school applications came in, Hirsch would hit the phones and start hustling for places for those students. And that’s exactly what principals and middle-school counselors citywide are doing right now, exactly a week since the first round acceptances and rejections went out.

At the end of the board’s three application rounds, and after all his networking, Hirsch said, “There was always a cadre of twelve or eighteen who were bypassed, and a lot of them would go to private or parochial schools, if their parents could afford it.”

Fourteen-year-old Shari Thomas had been commuting from East New York to Manhattan public schools since fourth grade and had a 90 average at Wagner Middle School when she was rejected last year everywhere she applied. “Okay,” she says, “I understand they want the schools mixed so it’s not all brains or all stupid people – but people I’ve known for years who had low averages were getting into three and four schools.” Because Baruch had just been approved to open this year, she was able to apply there late and was admitted.

“Get used to it,” a schools administrator told me as we were debating the fine points of high-school admissions one day. “The assumption is and always has been that middle-class families in the city will take care of themselves.” Meaning that they’ll pull what strings they can, and if the system doesn’t make room for their children, they’ll pay for a private school that will.

Harrington makes a similar point, though more gently: “If we all chase after the top 10 percent, we forget about the other 90 percent, who are entitled to a public education and who are more in need of us in terms of making a difference in their lives, the lives of their families, and the life of the city.”

Michael Serber, the founding principal of the new Academy of American Studies, a tiny but rigorous academic high school in Long Island City, must take every one of his lowest-scoring applicants. And Serber is happy to do it. “Do you really want to draw a line for a kid, at 13 or 14 years of age, and cut off his opportunities?” Serber says. “I’ll tell you the truth, I was not a great student until my senior year in high school. Spanish IV nearly killed me. I had to go to summer school. I failed high-school math. Then something happened in my psyche in my senior year, and I started to work.”

But principal Nathalie McFarlane of A. Philip Randolph High School at City College says, “I don’t know that I’d buy into this thing that every child should have the right to go wherever they want.” Randolph screens students academically for the medical/science and engineering programs but accepts Ed-Opt students in humanities and general academics.

While McFarlane worries that placing remedial students in tough academic classes can distract from the mission, she says, “I’m more concerned with the effect it can have on the individual student, which can be quite severe. Sometimes what they give me in the lottery is so unrealistic. What can I do with a student in the one percentile on reading? Tutoring. That’s all. Classes are large, and he’s really going to struggle.

“You don’t want to be perceived as an elitist kind of school,” McFarlane says, “but I think it’s so unfair to suggest that students apply to schools where they’ll have difficulty meeting the academic standards.”

So where, then, are the strongest alternatives to the elite schools? Much depends on a student’s interests, and whether the personal attention of a small school is more important to him than having the ability to sample lots of subjects and extracurriculars in a larger school. The ten schools in the sampler that follows represent a range of academic styles. Some are untested but promising; others have a long, strong track record. All possess the key ingredient for a strong school: strong leadership.

As parents of passed-over students file their appeals and work the phones in the coming weeks, it’s worth noting that some stories have happy endings. Four years ago, Lotus Ahmed went into a panic when, despite her A average in middle school, she was given no option but to attend her Brooklyn zoned school, rock-bottom by every measure. “My mother doesn’t speak English well, so I wrote a letter to the Board of Education – I didn’t even know who to send it to – and I said it wasn’t fair,” she recalled the other day. “I said if that’s how things were going to be, I was going to stop trying so hard. It wasn’t a letter that was supposed to sound good. I was just saying what I felt because I was so aggravated.”

She is ranked fifty-fourth in a senior class of 780 at Edward R. Murrow. She skipped lunch for four years to double up on math and science, and right now she’s searching for college-scholarship money. Robert Klein, the automated-admissions guru, does not remember reading Lotus’s successful appeal, but it cheers him to hear she used her opportunity well. “We’re not heartless,” he says. “I’m glad she got in.”

Ten Hot High Schools

Your kid didn’t make the cut at Stuyvesant? Here are some promising alternatives.HIGH SCHOOL FOR ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES444 West 56th Street, Manhattan

Sometimes luck helps. Environmental Studies benefits not only from an au courant theme and generous backers (the Friends of HSES foundation sinks $200,000 annually into teacher training, student internships, and curricular development) but also from its fabulous if anachronistic location in a former silent-film studio, complete with gilt-trimmed lobby. A group of private-school parents on a recent tour began by meeting with the principal, Alexander Corbluth, in the mahogany splendor of his office, which used to be Darryl F. Zanuck’s. A $26 million renovation five years ago brought in state-of-the-art science labs and compressed-seaweed ceiling tiles.

Given the recent renovation, Corbluth was surprised by what sophomores in a Participation in Government class found when they exercised their citizenship by testing in-house noise and air pollution. They reported that in many classrooms, the air vents were so noisy teachers were closing them. These same rooms had elevated – though not harmful – levels of carbon dioxide. Hearing the results of the study in a recent classroom presentation, Corbluth looked pained in a proud sort of way. He suggested students apply more scientific rigor by increasing and varying the times of their samplings, and promised to direct their findings to the chancellor.

Accepting students from all five boroughs, the school, despite its progressive theme, has a rather ordered and traditional curriculum. “Many of our families are very conservative, very middle-class, from the tons of unserved middle-class families in town,” Corbluth said. “This is a high-commitment, high-performance culture.” Assistant principal Martin Blumenkranz promises, “If you’re not going to come here and work, we’re going to make you miserable.” But the pressure goes both ways. “We can’t believe the demand we get from students for more AP advanced placement classes,” Corbluth said. Polish was recently added to accommodate native speakers who want to take the Regents exam.

Students must take all required Regents courses, but those designated at risk of failing certain subjects are served in smaller classes. All freshmen additionally complete a one-year introductory study of the urban and natural environment. Sophomores pursue internships that expose virtually all of them to some sort of fieldwork, from trail-clearing to manning the touch tanks at New York’s aquarium in Coney Island. Students who want to continue with the eco theme can take environmental law, literature, and justice; marine biology; or courses that touch on the environment through anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Corbluth budgets liberally for teacher development. There are occasional weekend staff retreats at a Nature Conservancy preserve on Shelter Island. Once he finds his multiple-degree holders, and sometimes team-teaches with them for a semester, Corbluth then must maneuver around seniority rules to keep them from being bumped to other schools. The staff includes Leila Wolley, a geologist finishing her doctorate in Spanish lit who teaches earth science, AP Spanish, and conflict resolution; Mark Fortney, who has degrees in East Asian Studies, education, and anthropology and teaches anthropology, sociology, and Intro to the Urban Environment; and novice environmental-law teacher Palma Repole, who one year ago was practicing civil-rights law on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

The school got its first full-time college adviser this year, and was recently hooked into the expan college electronic search network. Corbluth says he’d also “like to see senior year more focused, with students in small seminars around interdisciplinary themes.”

But generally he’s comfortable with the rate of progress. “There were a lot of people who came along with visions for schools who don’t know a thing about pedagogy,” he said. “I’m suspicious of making big sudden leaps… . I think schools succeed as a result of the long, hard work of a knowing staff.”


227-173; 243 West 61st Street, Manhattan

Beacon is “a five-year struggle to turn a noble idea into a concrete reality for kids,” as one teacher told me. Instead of administering Regents exams, the school has a waiver that allows it to grant students local and Regents degrees based on portfolios of their work in all the required disciplines. (“Is it for the portfolio?” is Beacon code for “Is it on the test?”) Seniors must also produce and orally defend a major research project. “My requirement for the project is, ‘Do something that twenty years from now you’ll be really glad you did,’” technology teacher and senior adviser Chris Lehman said. One senior is producing a video biography of his late father.

With a curriculum heavy on technology (students have unlimited computer-lab access from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily) and the arts, the goal here is to redirect students away from preparing for standardized tests toward producing more work on their own initiative. So a student’s Participation in Government portfolio might include his analysis of community fieldwork done through a nypirg internship, and his English portfolio might include a group-composed piece of hypertext fiction.

Located by the riverside in a brightly renovated former prop warehouse, the school is large and established enough to have a medium roster of extracurriculars that run a West Side swath from Ultimate Frisbee to Aspira, as well as a heavily used dance studio and black-box theater. But it lacks the budget to support a full-time librarian, a decent library, or one of the students’ most frequently demanded classes: home economics, believe it or not.

At Beacon, freedom generally beats out restrictions. A senior like Jennifer Verbit, upon discovering she has a substitute teacher in her health class, can head over to the art room and join the more engaging pastel-portrait exercise. The hat rule – a reliable measure of how liberally a school interprets students’ rights – is exquisitely calibrated. Guys may sport their Hilfiger skullcaps in the common spaces but must remove them on the turf of objecting teachers.

The college-placement adviser, Julie Beck, alternately cossets students with herbal tea and goads them and their parents (many not college-educated) to look beyond cuny and suny to less fashionable nonurban schools (Macalester, Wheaton, Goucher) that offer financial-aid packages.

As for the portfolios, such “authentic assessment” approaches are popular among educators who argue that schools should concern themselves less with transmitting bits of information and more with ingraining habits of inquiry – but skeptics argue that no exams means free-for-all standards. To that, English teacher Jonathan Goldman replies, “When we saw the quote-unquote New Standards, we sat down with the English department, parents, and administrators, and we giggled – we so exceeded all of them. Read 25 books a year? Our kids are saying, If only we could get away with that.

“This really is a lot of work,” senior Pilar Zaremba said recently. “December was the worst. I was trying to pass my math and science portfolios and apply to Bard early-admission. I complain about it all the time, and everyone’s bugging out right now on their senior projects, but I would complain about tests, too.”

Who does the school look for? “A student who asks questions,” said director Ruth Lacey, “who wants answers, who goes farther.”


111 East 18th Street, Manhattan

Baruch is the outgrowth of a campaign by Upper East Side parents to get themselves a nearby zoned school. When uptown space did not materialize, Baruch College president Matthew Goldstein was so persuaded the school “would have something behind the word rigor,” as principal Jill Myers phrases her mantra, that he offered to make a home for this District 2 high school on campus.

Fourteen, of course, is a self-conscious age, a time for stomping into your room and shutting the door. To be in a high school so tiny that your principal helps out as your gym teacher means never experiencing an unobserved moment. While the girls at Baruch don’t seem to mind, the boys, in their mile-wide pants, have the air of big dogs behind pet-store glass. “Most of these teachers know our handwriting,” one of them told me, with genuine dismay. When I repeated this to Myers, she laughed and said, “They really are like first children in a family. They’ve got more rules than God here.”

At least the panoramic views from Baruch’s sleek sixteenth-floor classrooms on 18th Street take the edge off incipient claustrophobia. Students here must perform community service and earn credits beyond city requirements in Regents science, math, English, and social sciences. The minimum passing grade is 70. (Students citywide can be promoted with 65’s.) The tone is businesslike – I didn’t hear any teacher try to wheedle a loitering student into class, as I did at some other schools – and the curriculum grounded. While many grand plans are afoot elsewhere for use of the Internet, teachers here said their immediate goal was to help students distinguish Web gold from dross. They don’t want to see a research assignment, in other words, cite the Drudge Report.

Myers knows this is not exactly the school parents had in mind, so she campaigned by leading weekly tours all autumn. The second-in-command, math teacher Susan Elliott, vows that parents on the school-based management committee won’t debate wall colors. In fact, they’ll be interviewing candidates and helping to hire next year’s expanded faculty.

As students progress toward graduation, Myers hopes to get a hand with electives from Baruch professors, and eventually to see upperclassmen in college classes. Students now enjoy access to Baruch’s library, its cafeteria food, and its gym.

Since the school was approved only after most students had made their choices last year, Myers said, “these are the kids who got burned by the admissions system.” If anything, many show unusual commitment to their work. The first club they asked to form was for peer tutors – Study Buddies, they call it. And student representatives recently asked Elliott to increase math tutorials from one day a week to two. This is not to suggest that Baruch students are easily led. When teacher Danielle Salzberg chose an Atlantic Monthly essay on electronic archiving – a densely argued dissertation peppered with words like reliquary and oubliette

Each week students and teachers exchange letters discussing their out-of-class reading. For teachers, the correspondence is enlightening but draining. “We’re cursing Susan for it,” Myers said, referring to the plan’s originator, “but it’s one of the best things we do. I’m convinced this is the way to encourage individual reading.”


333 West 17th Street, Manhattan

Considering the growth of state-mandated coursework, this tiny downtown socio-educational collective, wedged inelegantly into an old junior high, comes as close as a high school can these days to being a curricular democracy. Latin expired here for lack of interest, but sociology was added on, as was advanced physics. Every senior must choose a research topic and enlist a teacher to “mentor” a yearlong thesis project. Lower East Sider Kate Tull, wearing a wicca T-shirt the day we met, is exploring the influence of Celtic mythology in sixteenth-century Irish witchcraft trials. All eighth- through tenth-graders must join a book-discussion group, but students were polled on their interests before the staff chose genres.

The academic demands are tough, but students seem up to it; Lab’s attached middle school ranked No. 1 in the city this year in reading scores, and half the freshmen in the five-year-old high school move right in from Lab junior, leaving only about 45 seats for outsiders, mostly from District 2 lower schools. “Finding your voice,” as co-director Rob Menken explained, is a goal for all students, though some arrive in full song. Ninth-grader Danya Weiss, an aspiring herpetologist, told me she chose Lab to get “as much individual attention as possible” for her reptile-study needs.

Menken argues that students will push the edge one way or another, and some of that passion can be channeled educationally by letting them shape electives, work collaboratively with friends, and pursue independent studies. “When that happens, then kids buy into the academics,” he said, “even when you’re asking them to do something that’s hard and possibly unpleasant” – like showing up early for an add-on science lab. But it’s also a necessity to a school this small, which lacks up-to-date laboratories or a broad choice of majors. “We have to make up for that by giving students a richness of experiences,” he says.

The rule is that any student who can line up nine cohorts and an adviser may start an extracurricular, and while team sports are gaining favor in this formerly exercise-deprived school, most of the extracurriculars have a certain spice. Describing the ninth-graders who started a drama club this year, Kate Tull said, “Even though they’re all girls, they’re doing Twelve Angry Men.

But if the school seems alternative in an Ani DiFranco kind of way, its underpinning educational aspirations are classically ambitious. A recent college night saw three fourths of the junior class turn out with parents in tow. Parents, in fact, take on unusually time-consuming functions, including advising clubs and coordinating students’ community service.

Lab established its bona fides when it graduated its first seniors last year and dispatched them to Columbia, Cornell, and Carnegie-Mellon (not counting one rebel who went into the Marines). Menken and co-director Sheila Breslaw tout that placement record as vindication of a curriculum that sends juniors out into the world on twice-a-week internships, then crowds senior year with advanced science, math, humanities, and computer programming. As for teachers, they contort themselves to deliver the required elements of the Regents curriculum in as flowing and lively a way as possible. Global history plays into ethnomusicology, and students are challenged to draw on-the-spot connections between the vernacular of Dante, to take one example I heard, and Zora Neale Hurston. A master of the critical-thinking game is the popular history teacher Lem “M.C.” Martinez-Carroll. Leading a circle of eleventh-graders through a discussion of Thoreau and theology one recent afternoon, he posed the question: Is virtue learned or innate? “I think it’s a combination of both,” one girl haplessly ventured. “Aaaahhhh,” he moaned, waving her down, “you’re playing the safe role with me. Someone else! Give me an argument!”


328 West 48th Street, Manhattan

Gavroche’s singing cue, unfortunately, never came. Just down the hall from John Wenk’s tenth-grade humanities class was a kid who’d sung the part in Les Misérables on Broadway, but as Wenk later explained unapologetically to the assistant principal for performing arts, “We had too much material to cover” in analyzing Victor Hugo’s novel to break for a song.

“You see,” the assistant principal, Kim Bruno, responded, “I think there’s always time for a three-minute song-and-dance.”

Such is the tension and the spark that energizes this school, whose slight size matches its obscurity (it’s often confused with the similarly named private school). It has a distance to go to reach the academic pantheon, but with a collegial group of teachers and a core of preternaturally focused students who can do laptop algebra in a rehearsal hall (like Sara Zelle, Liesl in Broadway’s The Sound of Music), new principal Mindy Chermak is trying to elevate PPAS into a respectable La Guardia alternative.

Mornings are for academics. At lunchtime, students scoot down four flights to the cafeteria they share with Midtown West elementary, grab something breaded on a styrofoam plate, and dash back up for peer tutoring – math is in high demand. Just after 1:30 p.m., the school switches from academics to performance classes. Some 80 dancers head by bus to the Alvin Ailey studios, and a few musicians, to the Lucy Moses School. Visiting pros arrive to teach Scene Study in the auditorium and Movement for Singers in the school’s one airy space, a top-floor dance studio.

Just as the day is divided, so is the school community, between wage-earning performers and civilians who are happy to be extras in, say, an Aaliyah video. Senior Sean Nelson, who’s been on Touched by an Angel and played a lead in the film Fresh, is charmingly low-key about the cell phone he carries for trading calls with his agent.

Teachers at PPAS say they have a common goal: to use their students’ prodigious talents in the service of deeper, more meaningful lessons. Wenk, for instance, had three of his sophomores invigorate the classics by presenting an original seven-minute operetta based on Medea. (Singer-librettist Peter Previti said, “We were able to write it in a few days by coming to school early and staying late.”)

Principal Chermak rid the school of out-of-license instructors – the art teachers teaching science – and used this year’s healthier school budgets to feed the rest new texts, computers, and encouragement to toughen the curriculum. English and history are taught as a combined double period of humanities.

But no one will come here for the science labs. And because of the compressed academic day, the school can’t offer AP courses. To compensate, students are sent off campus for college courses, and recently the school joined a student-exchange program with Japan.

This past fall, Chermak produced a brochure for prospective parents noting each teacher’s degrees and professional qualifications. All sixteen were there at the open house, with syllabi and reading lists. Then came the song-and-dance: the school repertory company in three numbers from Rent. The magic, they had; their battered stage could have used a curtain and lights.


149-11 Melbourne Avenue, Flushing

There’s something strangely ritualized about every activity in this austerely pristine school in a three-year-old building on the Queens College campus. From the freshman recitation of the Ephebic Oath of induction (“I shall never bring disgrace to my city, nor shall I ever desert my comrades in the ranks …”) to the rule that all classroom remarks be delivered in full sentences, it’s plain that there’s a standard high-school way of doing things, and then there’s the Townsend Harris way. Even bells are out; Sibelius and Ravel signal the changing of periods.

But nothing is more ritualized than the boastful complaints students apply to the workload (severe), the grading (a B here is an A anywhere else, I was assured a dozen times in a day), and the social life (the ratio of girls to boys is 66 to 34). Even the humor is gripey, as in the school paper’s account of the No. 1 campus pickup line: “What a coincidence, I have no life, either.”

There’s a temptation to say “headmaster” when discussing the founding principal, Malcolm Largmann, who recently asked student officers to address what he considered insufficient door-holding and other hallway courtesies among students. He described to me the school ethic this way: “We don’t expect excellence. We merely accept it.” Not that most students need the prompt. “A lot of the pressure students feel here is self-imposed,” said Dominika Bednarska, who won early acceptance to Brown University this year.

Townsend Harris, originally an academy that prepped gifted boys for City College, was closed in 1942 and reopened in Queens in 1984, when civically inclined and highly successful alumni got the political backing of Queens politicos who wanted a selective school for their borough. Partly to distinguish itself from the science schools, it chose to emphasize humanities, with a strong classical base. All students take Greek or Latin.

Several told me that their parents had made clear to them, since their elementary days, that they’d better get A’s, since they were going to Townsend Harris. While the school is open to students from all five boroughs, it draws most heavily on Queens and can take a limited number of students from any Queens neighborhood high-school zone. Students are chosen based on their academic records and their standardized reading and math scores.

AP English and history are requirements. Electives offered this spring (in addition to Queens College courses) include a creative-writing workshop, Literature of Oppression and Protest, a law seminar, and Science via Art. All students are encouraged to pursue independent-research projects in the social or hard sciences. In fact, the research facilities are so spacious that student scientists planning to enter national science competitions get individually dedicated lab space.

To be included in an honors society, students also must perform 40 hours of community service a year. Largmann tells them it’s payback for the privilege of attending the school: “We’re building leaders of the future. This is what we expect of leaders.” While a fresh round of griping greeted that newly imposed standard this year, junior Annie Yan said that her work leading ceramics classes for disadvantaged children had been the formative experience of her high-school life. Having volunteered 100 hours last year at the Jamaica Arts Center, she called it “my second home.”

While the school is financially supported in part by an alumni association and a parents’ organization, it lacks the budget to exploit its modern building fully. The audiovisual lab is sometimes locked for lack of staff.

Counselors at Townsend Harris are known for being particularly industrious about helping students secure summer internships at law and financial offices, as well as gaining entry (often scholarship-supported) to such summer college seminars as the writing course Bednarska attended at Brown. And junior Chadwick Stewart mentioned how a counselor recently called him in to ask why his chemistry grade had slipped from a 90 to an 85. He wasn’t complaining, he said. He appreciated the nudge. “They always put you back on top of your game.”


5700 223rd Street, Bayside

Nearly 11,000 students from well beyond Bayside continue to vie each year for the 300 places in Benjamin N. Cardozo High School’s math-and-science, law, and dance programs. The school is twelfth among public high schools nationally in the number of students taking advanced-placement exams, and it still shines in the citywide bake-offs for student scientists and sculptors. Still, the question of how securely it rests on its green hilltop remains in play. It took a hit this year when Board of Education investigator Edward Stancik suggested there might be gang troubles at the school, only to be quickly rebutted by the mayor, who declared the school gang-free. Sensitive to parents’ need to have their public-school choice validated, principal Arnold Goldstein bombards them with charts and graphs demonstrating the school’s academic dominance not only among neighborhood high schools in the five boroughs but in comparison to Nassau and Suffolk too.

But the best example of Goldstein’s skillful spin traveled home this year with the announcement of PhoneMaster 2000. The new automated phone system is an unglamorous tool to reduce class-cutting. Parents can dial in and discover if their kid skipped a class that day. But sounding a more positive note, Goldstein noted that parents will soon be able to get recorded updates on team schedules, band concerts, and college nights. “I consider PhoneMaster a triumph for Benjamin Cardozo High School,” he wrote, “and hope you share my enthusiasm.”

Cardozo has as full a schedule of AP choices as can be found beyond the selective schools, and a team-and-club roster that’s constantly building (though scheduling choices can be tough: Do you debate or join Students for a Free Tibet? Lacrosse conditioning or the stock-market club?). Though the last dance fizzled (security rules kept out dates from other schools), the spring pep rally rocked. The science labs, where top students in the DaVinci Program tend years-long research projects, are getting a $1.3 million update that will allow for DNA research. Alternative-science aficionados explore the mind-body connection in stress-reduction classes.

Many teachers here have deviated from the monotony of chalk-and-talk, but Goldstein says he’d like to see faculty break up the classroom rhythms even more with small-group discussions and student-initiated projects. Still, the general calm of the instructional culture at Cardozo seems to carry over into what could be a tense social situation: Some 4,100 students knock backpacks in a building meant for 2,400. Students complain they can’t program their schedules with as many electives as they’d like. “Before, the problem was budget; now it’s crowding,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein doesn’t want to lose anyone to the crowd, and his staff is serious about reaching out to every kid. “Does each student in the building have one adult he feels confident going to if he has a problem?” he says. “That’s really important to us.”

Students here are not faceless. Shortly after visiting Cardozo, I met an administrator who told me about a senior whose mom, a teacher at another city school, had developed terminal breast cancer. As the student’s mother rapidly declined, it became clear she would not make it, as she’d fervently wished, to her daughter’s graduation. The story reached Goldstein late on a Friday afternoon. He found a diploma and drove to the woman’s house. There, at her mother’s bedside, the senior was granted her degree.


28-01 41st Avenue, Long Island City

Michael serber notes that he had nothing to prove by founding a new high school. He could have retired honorably in a year or two as history chairman at Forest Hills High. But he and Cardozo High School history chairman emeritus Howard Seretan had started a free, surprisingly popular Saturday history academy for city kids six years ago. When the backers of that effort, local magnates and historic-document collectors Richard Gilder and Lew Lehrman, wanted to launch a public high school, Serber could not pass up the challenge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the product of this partnership between the Queens High School Superintendency and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History seems simultaneously threadbare and well-nourished. The school makes its home in the shell of the old Long Island City High School, and if some of the windows are missing a few panes and the floor undulates, the new $100,000 computer lab has a T-1 line that teachers use to mine materials ranging from Bulfinch’s Mythology to Jefferson’s writings on religious freedom, pulled off the Smithsonian Website. Funny mounted snapshots of teachers on “dress-down day” share hallway space with glass vitrines holding priceless historical documents, including the letters of slaves, on loan from the backers’ collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library.

Located near the nexus of the E, F, 7, N, and R trains, the school primarily draws on a Queens population that is mostly foreign-born or first-generation American. Several students told me their parents wanted them here because the school seemed small and sheltered; they, on the other hand, relished getting away on field trips – a major point of interest here. The ninth-graders are going to Boston, and the sophomores will be overnighting in Gettysburg. This is the second summer two A students will be sent on scholarship to study literature for six weeks at Cambridge University.

Coursework is heavy; in addition to requirements, students must take a research-techniques course and three extra years of American history. Some students admit to being shocked by the stiff expectations. “Mr. Resnick the technology teacher gives research papers to everyone, and in English we have to write sonnets and myths – you actually have to make them up yourself,” said ninth-grader Kuncharee Kunjara. “I was going crazy with that stuff.”

But Serber says, “I have never had a parent say to me in this school, ‘I don’t think my child should be in the Regents math class – don’t you have something easier?’ If you try the work and you need help, teachers are always available to you. But there’s no opt-out. Everyone’s got to read Othello.

The staff has tinkered with the scheduling to allow smaller classes and longer periods of math and English in the freshman year. As teasers, they offer Wednesday-afternoon seminars in such popular subjects as dance and computer art, but only for passing students. The rest go to tutorials. By next year, Serber said, the school will offer its first advanced-placement class in calculus.

The small faculty features several postgraduate-degree-holders in their first teaching jobs but their second careers. The biology teacher was a hospital administrator. One English teacher was an actress (she assigns Huck Finn alongside the Civil War). Another worked on Wall Street and sold Saturns.

Sharona Kay, a Princeton history graduate with a master’s from Columbia, has only been a teacher. On a recent afternoon, she had her class imagining they were generals prioritizing what they needed to win a war.

“Water?” one student suggested.

“I see you remembered my theory that the next world war will be over water,” Kay responded.

“Food?” said another student.

“I’m so glad you said that. What would your soldiers do if they were hungry?”

“Eat each other,” another student replied.

“They would not eat each other,” she said with an amused smile. “You need to watch less TV and read more history.”


1600 Avenue L, Midwood

Murrow is famous first as the school where students sit in the halls and second as the place where aspiring Brooklyn thespians want to follow in the footsteps of alumna Marisa Tomei. Those two elements – theater and hanging out – come together in a particular stretch of corridor where the drama kids lounge in piles, languorously resting their heads in each other’s laps.

During Regents week, students spend fourteen hours a day here rehearsing “Sing,” that fading city tradition in which a school splits – freshmen and seniors versus juniors and sophomores – and teams compete to write and present the better musical show. But for all the attention to talented musicians and artists – who have to audition or submit portfolios when applying – Murrow is a big enough world for Russian chess champs, math fanatics, science-lab researchers, and aspiring lawyers who intern with congressmen. Some are zoned in; others from around Brooklyn must apply for a space.

What it hasn’t got is jocks. For many students, a deciding factor in ranking Murrow and Midwood on their choice forms is that Midwood has teams and cheerleaders, while its academic borough rival has kids batting volleyballs around in let’s-get-this-over-with co-ed gym classes.

As much as any high school in the city, Murrow is the personal expression of one educator, founding principal Saul Bruckner. He still teaches his AP American-history class each day at 7:40 a.m. and is a famously critical evaluator of other teachers. That’s because students are even more critical, he says. “Kids have very sharp antennae, and they know by the first or second day of class if they’re going to be taught anything.”

As curmudgeonly as he looks, Bruckner seems to have a deeply personal connection to his students, who are often immigrants or children of immigrants. Stopping a Guyanese-born senior in the hallway on a recent morning to ask how her college acceptances were looking, he heard a frustrated account of how her parents were holding her back from attending school in Connecticut. “There’s no one in front of me – I’m the first to try to go to college,” she said. “Your parents are like mine,” he told her. “I’m the first and only member of my family to go to college, too.”

Bruckner is a libertarian principal. He holds to the view that given broad choice, broad freedoms, and good guidance, students will not only work more productively but will think it was their idea to do so. Those not capable of the most advanced work find other outlets, including a thriving internship program. Most students are scheduled for one or two periods of “optional time” every day. They can eat or hang out, go to the photo lab or the set-design shop, or sample an elective like Textile Design or Holocaust Studies. Murrow students can also pick a major and lay on more coursework. Particularly popular are the science and math programs, where students can double up starting in ninth grade for the equivalent of six years or more of study. By following various elective sequences, students can major in the arts, English, business, or the social sciences.

Everyone must take 40 credits, but senior Shawn Rodriguez, who comes early for jazz band, helps edit the newspaper, is finishing a law sequence, and played a lead in A Chorus Line, is up to 80. “Some people just can’t handle the freedom,” he said, “but I came here because it felt like a place you could live in for four years. And it really shaped my interests. I always liked music, but I didn’t know I could be good at it, or be a good writer.”

Bruckner says, “I’m accused of letting kids get away with murder, but success gives you leeway. It’s the only thing that gives you leeway.”


350 67th Street, Bay Ridge

Ninth-grader alex allen says, “when i heard I was going into a mainstream class, I was angry for a whole week. I was afraid they were going to think of me as some kind of a nut or a psycho kid. But these kids aren’t like the ones in my junior high. And you don’t always have a teacher breathing down your neck here, expecting you to do something wrong.”

In a previous life, this was the elite sister institution to once all-boys Brooklyn Tech. Now it’s an academic school where leaders believe they’ve found a better way to educate and graduate special-education students. The effort to de-ghettoize special-ed high-school students – who drop out at a rate of about 90 percent citywide – began five years ago, when Dierdre DeAngelis, then teaching special ed, partnered with a volunteer mainstream math teacher to teach an integrated math class. The ratio of students was two-to-one, mainstream to special ed. Team teaching is employed all over the city but rarely this widely throughout a school building. There are 27 such classes now at Tele, covering every Regents-required subject, including foreign language. The adult-student ratio in these classes drops to about one-to-ten (there is usually also an aide in the room), and while one teacher is presenting the lesson, the others are cruising the classroom, helping students individually.

The project has been phased in slowly over five years, but statistical evidence shows that pass rates and attendance are up for special-ed kids. “If you take them out of the little twelve-foot room and put them into a regular classroom with support, they’ll live up to our expectations,” says DeAngelis, now an assistant principal.

But that simple picture belies the juggling, the hours of negotiation with parents and staff that go into making so many integrated classes work so smoothly. DeAngelis is constantly surveying teachers about which students are ready to progress into which classes and finding new incentives. For one failing ninth-grade girl, it was a place on the basketball team. Principal Charles Amundsen says, “The culture is that we expect teachers to be risk-takers. When they meet with success, we give them the means to share it with other teachers; and when they don’t, they know we won’t write them up for it.”

Amundsen, in his fifth year here, wants Tele to be known as more than just a school with a progressive special-ed program, so he’s very aggressively pushed the development of courses for high achievers. He put advanced placement classes into the schedule even before there were enough qualified students to half-fill the classes; they’re now well subscribed.

The interdisciplinary humanities program is loaded with college-seminar-style courses, including small-group studies of the Great Books. And to be able to fully exploit the five networked computer labs hooked to a T-1 line, teachers have been trained (in summer workshops) to find digital pathways into nearly every subject area. “There are people who are maniacally interested in authors like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe,” English teacher Phil Weinberg says, “and students can get so much about them from Websites.” That, with a we-try-harder sales approach, is fortifying the school’s reach into brownstone Brooklyn. Though many schools invite families only to after-hours open houses, Amundsen gives tours.

DeAngelis shamelessly uses her native Bay Ridge connections to good ends, most notably for the furnishings in a school store stocked not only with the traditional test-prep books but also with student-made jewelry and embroidered pillows. DeAngelis wanted special-ed students to get real-life work experience and decided the store would support a class in marketing. So she called in her neighborhood chips. “When I really need something, I can call the owner of Bay Ridge Toyota and say, ‘John, $500 donation. Write it off?’ “ she says with a smile.

Hard Lessons