The Top of Their Class

It’s easy (and tempting too, if you’re a mayoral candidate) to talk about what’s wrong with New York’s public schools. What you hear a lot less about is what’s right. Especially when it comes to high schools. Everyone knows about the crown jewels of our sprawling and uneven system – Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, LaGuardia – but too many parents haven’t heard of the newer success stories like the Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, the Young Women’s Leadership School in Spanish Harlem, or the Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea. And because students can apply to high schools all over the city, it’s important to check out what’s available outside your home district.

With the November 15 deadline to apply for next year rapidly approaching, we asked Clara Hemphill, author of New York City’s Best Public High Schools: A Parents’ Guide (just published by Teachers College Press), to look past Stuyvesant and its three well-known rivals, and find us the other best high schools in the city.

Over the past several years, Hemphill and her colleagues at the nonprofit Advocates for Children in Manhattan have visited scores of public high schools and interviewed hundreds of students, teachers, and parents. What they found was encouraging: Through skillful leadership and energetic fund-raising, certain schools have managed to mitigate the endemic woes of so many other city schools – peeling paint, antique facilities, oversize classes, overwhelmed teachers – to offer children real opportunities to excel. Most are small and experimental in their approach to learning; some are only a few years old. What they have in common is a group of passionate educators, diverse students, and engaged parents. What follows, then, are twenty of the best and most promising high schools in the system.


Baruch College Campus High School
17 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Admissions policy: Educational option
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: Not yet available
Enrollment: 386
Class size: 34 %
Ethnicity: 35% W, 9% B, 15% H, 41% A
Average SATs: Not yet available
Free lunch: 48%

Pairs of kids are sprawled on the floors of the classroom and hall, reading to one another from the Epic of Gilgamesh as part of their study of ancient history. This relaxed atmosphere, combined with hard work on classical texts, is typical of Baruch College Campus High School, a new school that has become one of the most popular in Manhattan even though it only graduated its first class in 2001.

Baruch is located on the tenth floor of a modern building on the campus of Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. (Students may take college classes too.) “The assignments we give are progressive, but the curriculum is traditional,” says principal Jill Myers, who founded the school in 1997 with a group of teachers.

The school’s strength has been in the humanities – kids read Greek classics such as Antigone and The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s comedies, and Dante’s Inferno as well as modern novels and non-Western works of literature from Africa and Asia – and writing is emphasized. But imaginative new chemistry and physics teachers promise to bolster the science departments. The school has embraced District 2’s math curriculum, called arise, in which students must explain in writing how they reached their mathematical conclusions and solve what are called “real world” problems. (For example, they might use algebra to understand how codes were cracked during World War II.)

How hard is it to get in? As many as 2,000 kids apply for 100 spots, so children must list it as a first choice on the application. Preference is given to students living in District 2 or attending District 2 middle schools.

Downsides: Sharing space with the college can be inconvenient. The high-school offices are on the fifteenth floor, five floors away from the classrooms. The college uses the classrooms at night, so high-school teachers must lock up their supplies each day.

Guidance and college counseling: There are two guidance counselors and a part-time college adviser – an unusually advantageous ratio. Each student is assigned the same adviser for four years. Students meet with their advisers in groups of twenty every day for half an hour and write them weekly letters. The adviser is the main contact for parents.

Come as you are: A classroom at the Lab School.Photo: Kristine Larsen

Beacon School
227 West 61st Street
New York, NY 10023
Admissions policy: Educational option
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 84%
Enrollment: 900
Class size: 28-34
Ethnicity: 46% W, 18% B, 28% H, 8% A
Average SATs: 1,010
Free lunch: 24%

The Beacon School was founded in 1993 by teachers from the Computer School who wanted to create a high school with the same spirit of innovation and cozy atmosphere. Beacon quickly became one of the most sought-after alternative schools in the city.

“We are teachers first, before we are English teachers or math teachers or science teachers,” says Christopher Lehmann, an English and technology teacher at Beacon. “We are not just dealing with our own little subjects. We are dealing with a whole child. Whether we’re laughing-joking-silly or very serious, we care about the kids more than we care about our subject – and we care about our subjects a great deal.” One teacher at Beacon called the young, politically liberal, and eager staff there “wildly overeducated.”

Located in a coolly converted warehouse near the Hudson River, Beacon uses the Internet to an unusual degree. All teachers and students have their own e-mail addresses, and many students have their own Websites. Students may e-mail teachers at home with questions. Parents can look up a teacher’s assignment on the school site.

The school is solidly in the progressive camp and stresses the use of “portfolio assessment” over standardized tests. In order to graduate, students must demonstrate their proficiency in major disciplines with written and oral reports.

The art projects give students a chance to follow their own interests. One student made a photo exhibit on hip-hop music. Another photographed homeless people and wrote about their living conditions. Some students produce their own CDs.

Teachers use textbooks sparingly, but the school isn’t completely nontraditional: A wide range of Advanced Placement courses is offered, including calculus, statistics, biology, chemistry, environmental science, and physics, and teachers help students prepare for AP exams in several other disciplines.

One parent who loves the school says, “If you’re a kid who’s not self-motivated, you might slide through without doing a lot of work. But the place has a joie de vivre that’s wonderful.”

How hard is it to get in? Preference is given to students who live in District 3. Only students who list Beacon as their first choice are considered for admission. Last year, 1,300 kids applied for 150 spots in the ninth grade.

Downsides: Some kids find the lack of structure difficult.

Guidance and college counseling: Each student has the same adviser for four years. Kids meet with their advisers in groups of fifteen to twenty for 40 minutes twice a week. In addition, kids and teachers often talk informally during their free periods.

New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies
333 West 17th Street
New York, NY 10011
Admissions policy: Screened
Grade levels: 6-12
Graduation rate: 96%
Enrollment: 730
Class size: 31
Ethnicity: 50% W, 13% B, 11% H, 26% A
Average SATs: Not available
Free lunch: 12%

The Lab School for Collaborative Studies aims to give students an academic program that’s on a par with that of Stuyvesant or Bronx Science in a more relaxed, less competitive atmosphere. Students work hard here – to be sure, some are as sleep-deprived as the kids at the specialized high schools – but Lab School is less intense and more intimate.

“The teachers are available all the time – before school, during lunch, after school. They understand each student’s problems,” says Marlene Spoerri, who graduated from Lab last year.

Founded in 1987, Lab combines middle and high school, serving kids in grades six to twelve. “Mixing a high school with a middle school gentles down the kids,” one teacher says. “There is a toughness that is pervasive in most high schools that is missing here.” Indeed, in an eleventh-grade physics class, a giant roller coaster made from K’nex, a colorful plastic construction toy, was used to study accelerated motion. Kids have built rockets and set them off in the playground.

Every junior works six to ten hours a week at an internship; past internships have included positions at day-care centers, hospitals, architectural firms, and judges’ offices. There is a student-exchange program in Eastern Europe sponsored by the Lauder Foundation.

Co-directors Sheila Breslaw and Rob Menken admit that a small school such as theirs can’t compete with the facilities and class offerings of Stuyvesant or Bronx Science. For example, Spanish is the only foreign language offered at Lab; Stuyvesant offers seven. Lab (which follows the district’s arise math curriculum), offers one year of Advanced Placement calculus; Stuyvesant offers three. But, says parent Lisa Siegman, the school is “academically serious without being high-pressure,” staking out a middle ground between schools with “crazy amounts of homework” and those that are touchy-feely.

How hard is it to get in? Preference is given to students living in District 2. The school accepts students in sixth and ninth grades; 96 percent of the middle-school students are admitted to the high school. Lab accepts 30 to 40 new ninth-graders each year. “Kids who really, really want to come should make themselves known to their guidance counselor,” says Breslaw.

Downsides: One mother says there are divisions between typically middle-class Brooklynites and more moneyed Manhattanites. Cliquishness is an acknowledged problem, and the administration plans to set up a “buddy system” to pair returning students with new ones to help newcomers make friends.

Guidance and college counseling: The school’s college adviser, Wendy Muskat, meets with groups of parents in their homes to discuss the admissions process.

The New York City Museum School
333 West 17th Street
New York, NY 10011
Admissions policy: Educational option
Grade levels: 6-12
Graduation rate:
Not yet available
Enrollment: 385
Class size: 25
Ethnicity: 26% W, 26% B, 40% H, 8% A
Average SATs: Not available
Free lunch: 34%

The premise of the Museum School is this: The museums of New York have the tools to give children a liberal-arts education – not just an appreciation of fine art but also a firm foundation in fundamentals like science, history, and English.

Students here learn to do research in the great Egyptian collection of the Brooklyn Museum, the laboratories of the American Museum of Natural History, and the galleries of the Jewish Museum. High-school students visit museums at least two afternoons a week. When they study immigration, they visit Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to relive the newcomers’ experience. When they study the French Revolution, they visit the lavish Rococo-period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get an idea of the excesses of the ancien régime. They learn to use the collections the way museum professionals do.

That said, “we’re dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists, both of us,” says Sonnet Takahisa. A former Brooklyn Museum assistant director, she and Ron Chaluisan, formerly a Lab School teacher, founded the Museum School in 1994, aiming to offer an education with the academic rigor of a traditional college-preparatory school and the fun of a progressive elementary school. While the teachers are still working out the kinks on how to match the math and science curricula with the Regents exams, the high school boasts a nearly 100 percent passing rate in Regents exams in English and 93 percent in history.

Parents call the high-school teachers “awesome,” “inspiring,” “really wonderful.” A mother who has one child at Stuyvesant and another at Museum says the teaching at the latter is superior.

How hard is it to get in? Children may be admitted in either sixth or ninth grade. In sixth grade, candidates are interviewed by the faculty. They participate in a mini-class and are asked to write an essay, solve a math problem, and observe an object and describe it. In ninth grade, students are accepted based on the educational-option formula. In recent years, the school has been particularly popular among Brooklyn parents.

Downsides: Like most other new schools, the Museum School has had its share of growing pains. Teacher turnover was rapid in the first few years. At first, most middle-school students left for high school, and the entering ninth-graders had trouble adjusting. But seven years into Museum’s existence, more than half of its eighth-grade class stays for high school.

Down time: The hallway at tight-knit School of the Future.Photo: Kristine Larsen

School of the Future
127 East 22nd Street
New York, NY 10010
Admissions policy: Educational option
Grade levels: 6-12
Graduation rate: 90% (estimate)
Enrollment: 600
Class size: 22
Ethnicity: 25% W, 25% B, 35% H, 15%A
Average SATs: Not available
Free lunch: 38%

The School of the Future has a first-rate writing program and a stellar record of sending just about every graduate to college. Classes have fewer than 25 kids; history and English, which are combined to form one two-hour humanities class, have only 22 students per class.

District 2 oversees the School of the Future. The staff repeats the progressive mantra that it’s more important to learn “habits of mind” than to learn a particular set of facts. SotF, in a pleasant, remodeled former vocational school for girls, has many student teachers from Teachers College, NYU, and the New School, so there’s usually more than one adult in a class.

Writing is part of every class, and every piece of writing goes through three or four drafts. Kids might write an essay on Sophocles, a movie review, or a plea to improve the conditions in the school bathrooms.

One look at a ninth-grade math class confirmed that the arise curriculum is in effect: kids sprawled on the floor in the hallway and leaning over desks, coloring large sheets of paper marked off in squares. They were making scale drawings of paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe in a lesson intended to show how artists use mathematics in their work.

How hard is it to get in? Children of all academic abilities are accepted, and kids from District 2 have preference. Space is extremely limited in the upper grades; children from outside the district are advised to apply for sixth grade.

Downsides: Kids say that a school this small becomes socially claustrophobic, particularly after six years. And parents and kids agree that the sports program is weak – the classic small-school woe – and that the music program is nonexistent.

Guidance and college counseling: One mother raved about the college-admissions counselor, who writes “extensive” letters of recommendation, takes kids personally to visit college campuses, and tirelessly calls colleges on behalf of students.

Young Women’s Leadership School
105 East 106th Street
New York, NY 10029
Admissions policy: Selective
Grade levels: 7-12
Graduation rate:
Not yet available
Enrollment: 360
Class size: 20-25
Ethnicity: 2% W, 18% B, 78% H, 2% A
Average SATs:
Not yet available
Free lunch: 100%

Founded in 1996 as one of the country’s few all-girl public schools, Young Women’s Leadership School has quickly gained a reputation as a no-nonsense bastion of academically challenging college prep for girls who believe they can do better without the distraction and competition of having boys in their classes.

Occupying three floors of an office building on 106th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, the school’s classrooms have framed art prints on the walls, cozy sofas, and tables instead of desks, with commanding views of Central Park. As a small school, the course offerings are limited. Sports consist of badminton games in the all-purpose room.

Girls wear uniforms – plaid skirts or navy trousers with blue blazers. You hear a lot of Excuse me’s from girls in the halls. “They are treated with respect, and they are respectful in return,” says Ana Torres, vice-president of the PTA, whose granddaughter attends.

But there’s a relaxed feel to the school as well. Girls call teachers by their first names (except for the Japanese teacher – because in Japan, only family names are used). Instead of in a noisy cafeteria, girls eat lunch in a place they call their “dining room” – with round tables ideal for conversation.

Classes offer an unusual degree of discussion and debate, with a strong emphasis on writing. Some have a feminist twist. In an eleventh-grade humanities class, girls studying Enlightenment philosophers read an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. For homework, they had to create an imaginary dialogue between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Wollstonecraft on the role of women in society.

The school is the brainchild of Ann Rubenstein Tisch, a journalist who believes that single-sex education is an important way to counter what researchers see as a crisis of confidence that strikes young adolescent girls. “It seems to be where the unraveling begins, right out of elementary school,” says Tisch.

How hard is it to get in? Priority is given to students in District 4 (Harlem and East Harlem). There are a few openings for students entering in ninth grade. Students who want to be considered for admission must list the school as their first choice.

Downsides: The school’s greatest draw – no boys – is also its greatest drawback. Staff turnover is also a problem.

Guidance and college counseling: A full-time college counselor meets weekly with each girl starting in her junior year. The counselor takes the girls on overnight trips to visit colleges, including Yale, Smith, and Connecticut College.


Edward R. Murrow High School
1600 Avenue L
Brooklyn, NY 11230
Admissions policy: Educational option, audition
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 86%
Enrollment: 3,850
Class size: 34
Ethnicity: 49% W, 23% B, 13% H, 16% A
Average SATs: Verbal, 488; math, 515
Free lunch: 19%

Edward R. Murrow High School was founded in 1974 with a progressive vision that students learn best when given the freedom to decide how to spend their time. Many of the petty irritations of high-school life are missing here. There are no bells, no hall sweeps by deans to get stragglers into class, no rules about wearing hats indoors. For kids with self-discipline, the school offers opportunities to learn to write well, to do independent research, to perform in a musical production, or to become active in student government.

And despite its unwieldy size, it’s a safe school. Founding principal Saul Bruckner discovered that corridors in which kids sit and chat – a Murrow trademark – are safer than empty halls. Another Bruckner directive still carried out is that kids change courses and teachers four times a year; his rationale was that the greatest number of kids and teachers should get to know one another.

The school is racially, socially, and ethnically diverse and has kids at every skill level – from super-high achievers to the severely disabled. It’s best known for its theater, art, and music departments, but the regular academic courses are as strong as any in the city. Students may take a wide array of Advanced Placement courses and compete in the Intel Science Talent Search. Seven foreign languages are taught. (Nearly 450 kids study Russian, and about one quarter of the student body speaks Russian at home.) The chess team is state champion and second in the nation.

How hard is it to get in? Open to any student living in Brooklyn; students living in a specified zone around the school have priority. Applicants must list Murrow as their first choice to be considered. Students in the music and art programs are admitted by audition. Students in other programs are accepted according to the educational-option formula (an advantage for low-scoring students.)

Downsides: Some kids can’t handle the freedom and begin to skip class or slack off. Murrow has physical education but no team sports. The school has nearly twice as many girls as boys, perhaps because of its lack of organized athletics.

Guidance and college counseling: Each student meets a guidance counselor four times a year. Although the college office is unable to give the personal attention a student might receive at a smaller school, the mother of a Murrow girl who was admitted to Smith raved, “The guidance counselors are amazing people. They have a well-organized system, and they are very level-headed about what colleges to go for.”

The Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences
2001 Oriental Boulevard
Brooklyn, NY 11235
Admissions policy:
Educational option
Grade level: 9-12
Graduation rate: 93%
Enrollment: 802
Class size: 34
Ethnicity: 71% W, 13% B, 7% H, 9% A
Average SATs: Verbal, 498; math, 527
Free lunch: 18%

Between classes, students wander a leafy campus overlooking the water. There are no bells, no squawking announcements from the public-address system. It may sound like a suburban California school, but it’s the Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences, located in the far reaches of Brooklyn on the campus of Kingsborough Community College.

Leon Goldstein bills itself as a “science school,” where students take four years of math and four years of science. But, says PTA co-chair Donna Lechillgrien, “I think its strength is in the humanities, believe it or not.” The school puts on two plays a year and is one of the last schools in the city to continue the tradition of the December “Sing” music-and-dance performance, in which virtually every student in the school participates. Seniors are paired with freshmen, sophomores with juniors.

AP courses are offered in both AB and BC calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, Western civilization, U.S. history, English literature, and, on occasion, Spanish. The typical class size is 34, but in many classes, especially AP courses, there are as few as 14 students. Students are dismissed from regular classes at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays for an hour of club meetings, including dance, drama, and science. Team sports include soccer, basketball, swimming, golf, bowling, and tennis.

Leon Goldstein has an association with Lincoln Center and boasts an accomplished jazz band with a teacher who’s a musician and composer. The school also collaborates with Brooklyn Botanic Garden; students worked with urban planners to design outdoor space behind the building. A science class tested soil and suggested plants that would grow well. An art class drew up landscaping plans.

The arts are integrated into English, social-studies, and language classes. For example, kids in an English class reading Lord of the Flies worked with visiting artists to build small canoes out of balsa wood and chicken wire to be floated in Sheepshead Bay. (Happily, that was all they re-created from the book’s plot.)

How hard is it to get in? Perhaps because of its remote location, Leon Goldstein remains a well-kept secret. But the school is open to all New York City residents. Students are chosen by a formula designed to ensure a mix of high and low achievers. Most students come from nearby Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, including the Rockaways.

Downsides: Leon Goldstein students actually did less well on the math and science Regents than on the writing, English, and social-studies tests. Also, reaching Manhattan Beach by public transportation is difficult. Some Queens students hire a private bus.

Midwood High School
2839 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210
Admissions policy: Neighborhood school, screened
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 87%
Enrollment: 3,500
Class size: 31-34
Ethnicity: 33% W, 38% B, 9% H, 20% A
Average SATs: Verbal, 509; math, 537
Free lunch: 13%

At Midwood, it’s socially acceptable to study round-the-clock. Kids are obsessed with their grade-point averages. The New York Times Magazine chronicled the life of a Midwood student who worked so hard she didn’t stop for meals.

The tone is traditional and highly structured. The H-shaped building with a cupola, constructed in 1940, is cheerful and well kept, if worn. The labs that produce so many top science students are so old they could almost qualify as museum pieces. Science equipment is stored in oak cabinets with glass doors.

As many as 4,000 students are packed in a building designed for 2,300. Classes are held in three overlapping sessions, with some students arriving as early as 7 a.m. and finishing at 12:30 p.m., and others arriving at 10:45 a.m. and staying until 4:20 p.m. The first lunch period is at 9:45 a.m.; practice for band and orchestra starts as early as 7 a.m. Advanced Placement courses are so oversubscribed that only students with near-perfect grades are permitted to take them.

And yet in 1999, Midwood had more semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search than any other high school in the nation, and in 2000 it tied for first place. Midwood offers fourteen Advanced Placement courses, and the College Board listed it among the best schools in the nation in terms of AP offerings. The school has an extensive sports program – including competitive team sports and aerobics, tennis, bowling, and billiards. Soccer, basketball, varsity swimming, and track are strong.

Midwood is racially integrated, and students say that’s one of its strengths. A black student, Natasha McLeod, recalls how her life has been enriched by friendships at Midwood with Russian and Pakistani girls. A white girl who transferred from a small private school says she appreciates the lack of snobbery. “All different religions and races, freaks and geeks – you learn to like all kinds of people here,” says another student.

How hard is it to get in? About 230 students are admitted each year to Midwood’s medical-science program; about 230 freshmen are admitted to the humanities program, all according to their academic records. Students zoned for the school are automatically admitted. Applicants may list Midwood as their first or second choice to be considered.

Downsides: “You can’t beat the math and science,” says one parent. “But … if you’re not in the specialized programs, you’re forgotten about.” About 10 percent of students take more than four years to graduate, and many kids transfer to other schools.

Guidance and college counseling: Only two college counselors for a graduating class of 500 to 700 seniors, but the office is well run and efficient and keeps students on top of deadlines.

High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology
350 67th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220
Admissions policy:
Educational option
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 64%
Enrollment: 1,200
Class size: 21-34
Ethnicity: 16% W, 17% B, 59% H, 8% A
Average SATs: Verbal, 427; math, 436
Free lunch: 43%

Located in the quiet, residential neighborhood of Bay Ridge, overlooking the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and New York Harbor, Telecommunication is housed in a Gothic-style brick building, complete with turrets and towers. Inside the stately entrance, the atmosphere is far more modern. While retaining some of the architectural charm and detail of the original building, Telecommunication is fully loaded with up-to-date equipment.

The school has a television studio with three cameras and sophisticated editing systems, five computer labs, and Internet access in every classroom. In addition, there is a mobile computer lab – a cart with twenty laptops equipped with antennas used for research in humanities classes and for science labs. It’s the only high school in the city to have its own Web server (every student learns HTML), and there is a course dedicated to creating and maintaining the school’s Website:

Many staff development days have been devoted to how to do interdisciplinary work, especially in English and social studies, and how to use Websites in a classroom. English honors students created a Web page to show off what the class had learned about author Toni Morrison and her novel Song of Solomon. Students were asked to write two original essays, one discussing the importance of names in the novel and the second exploring a theme of their own choosing. They also provided online photographs and a biography about the author and links to relevant sites.

Some schools build their reputation by attracting high-achieving kids. Telecommunication is building its reputation by attracting first-rate teachers. Instead of being assigned according to seniority, as is the norm in New York City public schools, prospective teachers are interviewed by the staff and asked to teach a demonstration class.

“This is a school that combines a hardworking faculty with academics, athletics, and the arts,” says sophomore Vanessa Poggioli. “If you’re not doing well in a subject, there will be a resource; if you want to start a club, they’ll help.”

How hard is it to get in? The school, which is open to students from across Brooklyn, used to draw most of its students from Bay Ridge. More recently, Park Slope families are looking at it as a smaller alternative to Murrow and Midwood. The school admits students according to a formula that balances low- and high-achieving students.

Downsides: Space is limited, so there’s no lounge or special place for students to hang out. There are no lockers, and students must carry their coats and books.

Popular science: Students in the DaVinci program at Benjamin Cardozo High School.Photo: Magdalena Caris


Benjamin Cardozo High School
57-00 223rd Street
Bayside, NY 11364
Admissions policy: Neighborhood school/screened/educational option
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 87%
Enrollment: 4,000
Class size: 34
Ethnicity: 36% W, 18% B, 10% H, 36% A
Average SATs: Not available
Free lunch: 13%

Lush lawns, shady maple trees, a pleasant outdoor patio, and expansive playing fields give Cardozo the feel of a suburban high school. Some students choose it over Bronx Science or Stuyvesant, saying it offers comparable academics in a somewhat less intense, less competitive atmosphere.

Cardozo requires four years of science and four years of a foreign language. Students are strongly encouraged to take four years of math. An unusually high proportion of students take Advanced Placement courses. In fact, the College Board in 1997 ranked it twelfth of 12,002 schools in the nation in the ratio of graduates to AP exams taken.

The social-studies department houses the “mentor law and humanities program,” designed to carry on the ideals and traditions of Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo, for whom the school is named. In their junior and senior years, students in the law program take courses in constitutional and civil law and work as interns at law offices, with local politicians, or in police stations.

The school’s selective DaVinci Science and Math Institute offers students the chance to conduct original research. “We have the opportunity to do cutting-edge research on equipment that colleges would be envious of,” says Dr. Dean Saghafi, who heads the biology-research department. And because the DaVinci program is small – with only 100 kids in each grade – students have a chance for a lot of individual attention.

The size of the school makes it able to offer a wide range of extracurriculars. There are 28 athletic teams, including basketball, soccer, gymnastics, tennis, baseball, lacrosse, and bowling. “For kids who aren’t really into the team sports and aren’t too athletic, we have yoga, we have salsa, fencing, and volleyball,” says one teacher.

How hard is it to get in? All students who live in the zone for Cardozo are automatically admitted. Students from anywhere in Queens may apply to the specialized programs for either ninth or tenth grade. The DaVinci Institute is highly selective, with more than 2,000 applicants for 100 seats. The law program accepts students according to a formula designed to balance the number of high and low achievers. The dance program accepts students by audition (about 600 students apply for 100 seats).

Downsides: More than 4,000 attend classes in a building designed for 2,500. Scheduling is such a nightmare that class rosters are rearranged two or three weeks into each semester as students are shifted from oversize classes to ones that have fewer students.

Guidance and college counseling: Parents praise the staff of the college admissions office, but acknowledge that there is little opportunity for individual attention because of the size of the graduating class – 1,000.

Townsend Harris High School
149-11 Melbourne Avenue
Flushing, NY 11367
Admissions policy: Selective
Grade levels: 9-12
Graduation rate: 99%
Enrollment: 1,050
Class size: 25-34
Ethnicity: 49% W, 10% B, 10% H, 31% A
Average SATs: Verbal, 625; math, 621
Free lunch: 17%

Townsend Harris High School is to Queens what Stuyvesant is to Manhattan and Bronx Science is to the Bronx: a super-high-powered, highly selective school that consistently sends graduates to the Ivy League.

But Townsend Harris differs in several key respects. It focuses on the classics and humanities rather than on science (although advanced science students may compete for the Intel Talent Search prize; five were finalists in 2001). It’s a manageable size, with an enrollment that’s one-third the size of the so-called science schools. Townsend Harris has managed to reduce class size to 25 students in 40 percent of its courses, while the others have standard class sizes ranging from 30 to 34. Its population is about 65 percent female; Stuyvesant and Science have mostly boys. Classical music, rather than bells, announces class changes. Townsend Harris has events such as Pajama Day – when everyone wears pajamas to school. And the students eat in a “dining room,” not a cafeteria.

The curriculum is traditional, and students follow roughly the same course of study as at other public high schools. Students are expected to take three to four years of a modern language – Japanese, Hebrew, Spanish, or French – in addition to Latin or Greek. Students are encouraged to develop their skills in speaking and defending an argument. The school’s debate team won a statewide moot-court championship three years in a row.

The school has a strong sense of community – almost a clubbiness – fostered by school traditions. All students recite the “Ephebic oath,” in which they promise to be good citizens and to leave their city better than they found it. Alumni have raised a $1.5 million endowment for developing new programs.

How hard is it to get in?

Downsides: Townsend Harris has more limited Advanced Placement offerings than the specialized high schools. Also, the dress code is strict (no tank tops) and the homework on the heavy side (four hours a night).

Guidance and college counseling: The size of the school, with 250 students in each grade, means students get more help with college admissions than they might at a very large school. “We meet with students in small groups their junior year, and with their parents, and draw up an individual plan,” says college counselor Marilyn Blier.

The Admissions Maze
The freedom to choose any school in the city comes at a cost. The byzantine application process can be amazingly off-putting. There is one application for all schools, due by November 15 (a week later than usual because of the World Trade Center attack), but each school has a different follow-up procedure. Therefore, the most important decision a student can make is which school he or she puts as first choice. For more information about the process, more details about these schools, and descriptions of 24 other high-performing schools, consult Hemphill’s book. For applications and information about this year’s annual high-school fair, which has been rescheduled for October 27 and 28, visit or call the Office of High School Admissions, 22 East 28th Street, ninth floor (917-256-4300) and check the Board of Education’s online school directory at

The Top of Their Class