Stellar Programs for Stellar Students

There’s more to high school than writing term papers and memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem.

Photography by John Rizzo

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You gotta learn the basics—and pass those darn Regents exams—but high schools in Westchester offer a lot more than plain vanilla reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students can choose from a wide array of outstanding programs and exciting extracurricular activities at every school. We found a double handful of enrichment opportunities—and hundreds of fascinating students doing everything from producing hundreds of hours of TV programming to working on a cure for cancer!

Eastchester High’s Going Green Club spreads the good word.

Three years ago, a group of Eastchester High students jumped with gusto into the save-our-planet fray by starting an organization to promote ecologically sound practices like re-using paper that’s still blank on one side and getting to school the no-emissions way—on foot.

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“This year,” says Faculty Advisor Stacy Goldring, “things are really taking off.”

About 15 kids meet on Tuesdays after school and some regularly participate in the town’s Green Committee meetings on Thursday evenings. But they don’t meet just to talk—their actions speak louder than words. Like many other green groups that belong to the Westchester Student Association for the Environment, they sponsored “Walk to School Day” last April, not only encouraging their classmates to hoof it that day, but soliciting gifts from local businesses to use as raffle prizes for participants. They’ve also organized several campus clean-ups.

Their real focal point is education, so, in January, the Going Green Club went to the Waverly Early Childhood Center where they read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to the younger kids. They also made a tree for the front lobby of the elementary school with partially used paper. The tree has 27 branches, one for each classroom, and the little children made leaves and decorations for it under the tutelage of the club members.

Plans are underway to start a Going Green Club in Eastchester Middle School, too, with guidance provided by the high school students. They are also researching designs for a green classroom that would demonstrate the many ways—big and small—that schools can protect the environment.

Competing Against The Odds
Small and trackless, Alexander Hamilton High makes its mark in track & field.

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The Alexander Hamilton track team trains hard—despite the lack of a home track.

Rocky Balboa has nothing on the members of the Alexander Hamilton High track team when it comes to training in tough conditions. He may have run through the mean streets of Philly and sparred with sides of beef, but the Red Raiders from Elmsford build their endurance and practice their technique in the school parking lot, the soccer field, and even the South County Trailway because there’s just no space around the high school for a regular track. But that hasn’t stopped them from winning—even against much larger schools.

The girls’ team won the first indoor league championship in the school’s history this year, competing against a field that included Valhalla, Byram Hills, Briarcliff, Rye Neck, and Westlake. Last year, the school sent four students—the most they’ve ever had—to the state outdoor track championships.

Coach Rich MacLeish has built the team from 12 members when he started nine years ago to more than 60 today, two-thirds of them girls. “We worked hard to build interest levels among kids who may not have been super-athletic but who might find it fun,” he says. “In the past two or three years, the desire to work hard has really evolved.”

In 2008, they started a cross-country program and the girls’ team made it to the state meet the last two years. With cross-country in the fall, indoor track over the winter, and outdoor track in the spring, track & field has become a year-round activity for a remarkably large percentage of the school’s 300 students.

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“One of the reasons the sport does well here is that we emphasize how it enables you to compete against yourself,” MacLeish says. “Even if you don’t ‘win’ an event, you can take pride in doing a good job against your previous best.”

At the beginning of last year, the team made it an additional goal to earn the New York State Scholar-Athlete Team Award, which requires that almost everyone on the team maintain a 90 average. They’ve now won the award through four seasons. “Now we have juniors and seniors working with freshmen to study for tests and understand their homework,” MacLeish reports. “It’s kind of a self-tutoring program. If somebody slacks off in class, they get on each other.”

Active Artists at New Rochelle High
Touching lives around the world

Thirty-nine artist activists help bring attention to the visual arts at New Rochelle High while making life just a little easier for people in need all over the world. They are members of the New Rochelle High School National Art Honor Society, one of 16 chapters of the organization in Westchester schools.

To be in the NAHS, students must not only produce an acceptable portfolio, but also maintain an 85 average in their art classes, have recommendations from teachers, counselors, and others, and meet the community-service requirement. Most kids put in 20 to 30 hours of community service each year.

Since the group was formed in 1993, members have used their talents to fund causes as diverse as a local soup kitchen and an orphanage in Nicaragua. They’ve raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the World Trade Center attack, and, this year, the earthquake that devastated Haiti. They’ve sponsored students in South Africa and raised money to clear landmines in Lebanon.

Many of the community-service projects are ongoing. The kids visit a local nursing home each year with handmade holiday cards and give art lessons to younger kids at the Huguenot Children’s Library during sessions held Monday afternoons for six weeks each in the spring and fall. Using the theme “Hands-On Art,” they help the little ones do mono-prints, clay, and watercolors in a curriculum the students develop themselves. Faculty advisor Grace Fraioli says, “It’s very exciting to see kids I have taught who are now teaching kids themselves.”

One of the highlights each year is a major group project the students create during their regular Thursday meetings. The theme this year is “Wonders of the World,” and they are making a mural that will be unveiled in mid-April in the Museum of Arts & Culture, which is located between the main building and the high school’s new $25 million wing, which houses the arts facility. Two years ago, their group installation, Seasons, received so much acclaim it was installed permanently in the main building.

Health Professionals In the Making
Gorton High focuses on creating more doctors, nurses, radiologists, and medical technicians.

Gorton High School students prepare for careers in the booming healthcare industry.

Healthcare represents close to 20 percent of the American economy, which is one big reason Yonkers’s Gorton High School became the Academy of Medical Professions this year.

“Our goal is to have students ready to go right into a job in the medical industry if they don’t go to college,” says Assistant Principal Sandra Piacente. “If they are college-bound, we have a different track.” The school’s 1,400 students not only study the core curriculum of math, science, English, and social studies, but elect an academy class in the medical field for each of their four years.

The program is based on the standards of the National Consortium on Health Science Education. The school is one of only two in the U.S. to meet those standards, according to Program Coordinator Dr. Clarice Morris. Ninth graders take classes that introduce them to various fields of healthcare study. In the 10th grade, they choose one of five pathways, diagnostic, therapeutic, health informatics, support services, and research and development, and choose electives accordingly. Available classes range from Botany to Independent Research in Anatomy and Physiology.

Teachers for core classes are encouraged to integrate a health theme into their coursework. “The math teacher, for example, does a lesson on statistics on obesity,” Morris says, “while the medical teacher does something on the diseases that stem from it, and the English teacher might read an essay from someone who has trouble with their weight like Oprah.”

In addition to their coursework, all students are required to complete at least two internships or practicums outside the school by the time they graduate. Each represents anywhere from 40 to more than 100 hours of on-site work at participating institutions like St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers. The program also has an advisory board of professionals including radiological technicians, health informatics experts, nurses, doctors, physical therapists, pharmacists, and even lawyers.

All the World’s a Stage…in Bedford
Fox Lane Players entertain, enlighten, and put a scare into audiences throughout the school year.

The Fox Lane Players do everything from making their own costumes to choreographing dance numbers.

Everything from deep drama to frothy follies—not to mention one of the scariest haunted houses around—are presented each year by the 125 students in the Fox Lane Players, one of the most active student organizations at Bedford’s Fox Lane High. The club’s alumni include Tony Award-winner Marissa Winokur, who played Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway, and ABC’s All My Children star Melissa Claire Egan.

The group puts on more shows than just about any school in the region, with three major productions every year and everything from staged readings to cabaret presentations in between. Performances and production values are more than a step above average, too, which is one big reason the group has been invited for the last four years to perform at the American High School Theater Festival—part of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

This year, the fall play was The Investigation, the Peter Weiss play about the Holocaust. The spring musical was Beauty and the Beast, which had a cast of about 40 with some 50 students from all grades participating behind the scenes. Nearly everything you see and hear on stage comes from the students. They make the costumes and build their own sets. Most of the musicians in the pit are also students, and this year, senior Christine Maroti is choreographing the show, too.

But there’s more. The group does a Halloween House on the stage, attracting around 500 visitors to raise money for their scholarship fund. Another fundraiser is Ties & Heels, a cabaret-style production at the Little Theater at Fox Lane Middle School that includes musical numbers and comedy.

A student-directed play will round out the major productions for this year. Fox Lane Director of Theater C. Edward Steele, who spent 30 years in professional theater as an actor and manager, says he never knows what the students will stage. “It is rather eclectic because they choose some of the plays,” he says. “They’ve produced everything from classic children’s theater to Honk.”

From Cancer Cells to Stretchy Ice Cream
Armonk students explore the frontiers of science.

Most teens are whizzes with cellphones and iPods, but few have mastered technology like ultracentrifugation, electron microscopy, and in-vitro assays the way Rachel Cawkwell has. The Byram Hills senior’s highly developed lab skills helped her become a finalist in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search with a project titled Examining the Role of Microvesicles in Communication between Tumor Cells and Macrophages in Cancer. At press time, she was competing for $630,000 in awards.

Three other students in the school’s Advanced Science Research Program made it to the semi-finalist round. Cawkwell followed in the footsteps of her brother, Phil, who reached the semi-finals in 2007. Her mother is a doctor, and Rachel says, “I came into the program pretty sure I wanted to be a doctor, too. But being able to study and understand one particular problem solidified my goal.”

Program Director David Keith says about 100 students participate in the science research program each year, making it one of the largest among the county’s high schools. The school is also a perennial powerhouse in the national Intel competition, although Keith says, “We use Intel as a standard of excellence, but we don’t concentrate too much on competition. The focus is on fostering student competency in academics and integrity.”

The program is a three-year spiraling curriculum in which the fundamentals students learn during their sophomore year are reinforced in their junior and senior years as they really bear down on individual research projects. Anyone can sign up, although about half the students who express initial interest discover it’s just not their thing by the end of the tenth grade. The amount of work students do is daunting. In addition to a daily period of classroom instruction, students can often be found in labs during their off-periods to work on projects or writing. Keith adds, “If they work in the field with a mentor, which most of them do, they’ll often be there after school and during the summer.”

Cancer research is important, but senior Sarah Marmon’s project may improve our lives, too. She came up with a recipe for salep dondurma—otherwise known as stretchy ice cream—that replaces an ingredient made from an endangered Turkish orchid with flour made from a Japanese tuber. Working in her own kitchen with lab equipment and guidance from mentors from NYU and the French Culinary Institute, Sarah developed a recipe that has the added bonus of being high in fiber and may promote weight loss.

Keith says, “I’ve tasted it, and the world is a better place for it.”

Ten Years of Verse
Peekskill High’s Poetry Café celebrates student poetry.

Peekskill may be the poetry capital of Westchester, thanks to the Poetry Café, where as many as 60 students gather during lunch hour in the high school library each month to express themselves in verse and read their own work. The group celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Nicholas Troche performs regularly, reading passages like this from “My Bestest Friend,” one of his own poems: “Her skin that’s like a toasted golden-brown marshmallow/when the sun hits it just right/it has black and blues.”

“Poetry is a natural way to express feelings and emotions,” says school librarian and Café organizer Judy Kaplan. “Many students write poetry in secret—most of them don’t get up and read because it’s so personal. But a few brave ones will and they encourage others to do it, too. It’s amazing how supportive the group can be.”

The students also share recitations with other schools around the country via the Internet and put on a “poetry slam” in June, competing with Thurgood Marshall High, a school near Houston, Texas. Three judges at each school score the performances and award prizes to the winners.

The school works closely with Peekskill’s Field Library, which brings in professional poets like Marc Kelly Smith to perform at the high school, middle school, and the public library.

A monthly poetry magazine of student work, Poetry Odyssey, is published on the web and podcasts and videos featuring student poets reading their work also are available online and in the school’s online newspaper. In addition, the local school cable channel broadcasts Poetry Café performances.

Video Streams Out of Sleepy Hollow
Media Lab produces TV programs covering the entire high school experience.

Sleepy Hollow’s Media Lab produces television programming for cable TV.

Move over, NBC, there’s another TV powerhouse in town. It’s the Media Lab at Sleepy Hollow High School, where 125 students produce a growing lineup of newscasts, sports coverage, documentaries, and specials that rival those of the professional TV networks. The programming is distributed on the school’s internal network, an award-winning website (, and on-demand on cable channel 614. The students also produce nearly the entire program lineup for Cablevision’s channel 77.

The facility has a computer lab with its own high-speed network, a control room that’s as sophisticated as they come, and a fully equipped TV studio complete with Chroma Key capability that allows the student producers to use computer-generated imagery for all sorts of interesting effects. It all supports a TV production class, a digital news class, and multimedia classes that are double-period so students can work on longer projects.

A vast array of programs come out of the lab. Every week, the students produce eight newscasts about events at the school. They also cover every sports event as well as all the plays and concerts. They even produce one-off programs like a special on Spirit Week and have been creating a DVD version of the annual school yearbook for the past 10 years. “We try to cover the whole high school experience,” says teacher Tom Mormile.

The video mavens help kids in other classes, too. They put work from the Art Department into video and produced a point/counter-point debate for the Social Studies Department. Students in the English Department illustrated and wrote children’s books and the media kids helped them create videos using voice-overs and student graphics.

What’s next, Avatar?

Jump Start for College
Roosevelt High teams with Westchester Community College

College isn’t something in the distant future for students at Roosevelt High School. It’s here today for 90 10th graders enrolled in the Collegiate Academy at Roosevelt, a collaborative program presented with Westchester Community College that puts students on a fast track to a college degree.

Hopes are high for the program, particularly in light of the black eye Roosevelt received this year when New York State Education Director David Steiner named it one of the state’s “persistently lowest achieving” schools. The designation stemmed from the school’s low graduation rate, according to Yonkers Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio, which, in turn, had more to do with inaccurate recordkeeping dating back to 2002 than anything else. Still, many students at the school struggle to earn a diploma in four years, due in part to the large number (52 percent) for whom English is a second language, as well as to the lower economic status of many families in the community.

All of this increases the importance of the Collegiate Academy. This year’s 10th graders are the first in the program, which they will follow through their senior year. In addition to the high school core curriculum, students take courses that earn full college credit at WCC. They also receive extra counseling and tutoring by a team of nine instructors dedicated to seeing them through the four-year program. In the summer, they spend some time on the WCC campus to see what college life is really like. Students follow the college syllabus and use the same textbooks, so they have to be brought up to college literacy standards in order to succeed. Their teachers are accredited to teach at the college level, too.

“The students aren’t just pursuing a separate curriculum,” says science teacher Gladys German. “They have a separate identity as members of the Collegiate Academy that extends to everything from student polo shirts with a distinctive logo to special awards ceremonies.”

Students prepare a portfolio of work and honors that follows them throughout the program and supports the formal presentations they make to their parents at the end of the year. A portfolio I saw included a fascinating paper on the “taxonomy of love as expressed in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.” It will be two more years before the first Collegiate Academy students start applying to colleges and universities, but hopes are high the head start they receive in this program will lead to successful college careers.

We Love a Parade!
The Pride of Port Chester steps lively to rouse the team and stir the fans.

The Pride of Port Chester marches to its own drums.

It’s physically impossible to keep your feet still when “The Pride of Port Chester” strikes up a brassy march and high-steps across the field with flags flying, sabers whirling, and their signature white helmets flashing in the lights. The Port Chester High School Marching Band has delighted audiences from Miami’s Orange Bowl to the Syracuse Carrier Dome with precision formations and expertly performed musical selections.

The 120-member band and 20-student color guard not only livens up football games and dozens of home-town parades, but competes against other top high school bands all over the country. In 2009, they traveled to Cary, North Carolina, and placed second among 18 schools at the Panther Creek Invitational. Over the years, the band has played in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Orange Bowl, at Giants Stadium, and even the Rose Bowl. In 2005, the band was invited to perform in Bermuda to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the island’s discovery.

Moviegoers have seen the band’s distinctive uniforms—modeled after the British Royal Marines—in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street and Spider Man III.

Band meets five days a week during the academic day, but the after-school commitment is even more intense, according to Director of Bands Bob Vitti. “They practice two or three nights per week,” he says, “and weekends include performances at sports events, parades, and competitions.” The group enters nine to 12 contests each year.


Dave Donelson lives and writes in West Harrison. He thought his life was interesting until he started visiting Westchester’s high schools.

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