2005 High School Report
How Good Is Your Local High School?
There’s more to education than SATs and GPAs. This year, in addition to ranking Westchester’s top public schools, we went looking for frequently overlooked institutions with academic programs or achievements you should know about. And we found a few
By David Nayor
with Mark Frankel
Westchester is known for its good schools. Take a poll, informal or otherwise, of the best public high schools in America, and many of the names you’ll get in response are found in our own backyard: Scarsdale, Bronxville, Horace Greeley, Briarcliff, Edgemont, Blind Brook, Rye, Irvington, Pleasantville, and John Jay are a few of the schools that year after year land atop the charts. It’s not that hard to figure out why. Money, high-achieving and involved parents, committed educators, extensive resources (which is a function of—you guessed it—money), and super-motivated (and competitive) students fuel a community-wide drive for success.
This year, for our annual high school survey, we gathered and crunched all the usual numbers to judge local schools’ performance. We sent out a questionnaire to each of the county’s 44 public high schools asking for a variety of educational statistics, to help us determine which of Westchester’s public high schools are best; every school responded. You can learn the results on page 66.
But before you turn the page, remember that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and SAT scores. Numbers, we are the first to admit, do not tell the complete story—which is why we went looking for the hidden gems among Westchester high schools.
And we found them, too: educational assets like New Rochelle’s innovative performing arts program, Pelham’s foreign language instruction, White Plains’s nationally recognized advanced science curriculum, Port Chester’s Freshmen Academy for students at risk of dropping out, the medical training magnet program at Yonkers’s Gorton High, and Peekskill’s small learing communities. Once you’ve read about them, you’ll remember there’s more to education than merely grade-point averages and average class size.
But we begin by looking at our No. 1-ranked school: Edgemont Junior-Senior High School.
The Edgemont Edge
Even among the many fine schools in Westchester, Edgemont Junior-Senior High School consistently leads the pack. It scored as the top-performing high school in the county, sending 98 percent of its 2004 graduates (total: 148) on to four-year colleges, including six of the eight Ivy League universities: 10 to Cornell, six to Columbia, three to Harvard, two to Penn, and one each to Princeton and Yale. Its curriculum includes 30 honors and Advanced Placement (college level) courses. In its 2004 graduating class, it produced 8 National Merit finalists and 21 commended students. It even boasts a three-time New York State champion Division-Three football team.
What is it that allows tiny Edgemont, with only 918 students in grades 7 to 12, to be No. 1? It’s a combination of factors, but perhaps the most important two are its small size and tremendous community support.
When it comes to schools, smaller simply is better. For starters, small schools are more cost-efficient, according to U.S. Department of Education researchers Valerie Lee and Julie Smith. The reason? They require less bureaucracy to operate. That may explain why Edgemont gets so much bang for the $16,163 it spends on average per student, $2,000 less per student than second-place Horace Greeley (Chappaqua).
Edgemont’s small student population pays off in another important way, too. With both junior and senior high occupying the same building, students and teachers become familiar with each other earlier—and stay in touch longer. “The small school environment promotes the building of relationships between students and faculty,” opines Richard Glickstein, president of the Edgemont Board of Education. “It also allows the faculty to be more supportive of students, helping them reach their potential.”
Small schools often mean smaller classes. And while Edgemont’s average class size of 19 students per class is not the lowest in our survey (that honor goes to Cortlandt Manor’s Walter Panas High School, which averages only 16 per class; Blind Brook, Pleasantville, Croton Harmon and Westlake are tied for second place with 17 students per class), it places the school at the lower end of the class-size spectrum. Research consistently suggests that small classes help promote learning, encourages better attendance, and increases the likelihood of kids participating in extracurricular activities.
You don’t have to be a pedagological genius to figure out why. Small classes mean more individual attention and more personal instruction. Ask any teacher: schooling 19 pupils is easier—and more effective—than teaching 21 or even 20.
Relatively small class size allows Edgemont teachers to do their jobs well. “We really have an exceptional faculty that will dedicate whatever time is necessary to help a student do well,” says Edgemont’s Principal William Manfredonia. Frequently, a team of teachers and counselors will meet to see if there’s anything they can do to give students a leg up. The school frequently holds faculty meetings before or after school, which gives students a chance to discuss their programs, ambitions, and extracurricular activities with their instructors.
What’s more, Edgemont High—and this is critical to its high performance—occupies a special place in the community; it is the center of communal life.
Truth is, there’s little else there. Edgemont is neither a town nor a village, but a school district. (Residents have a Scarsdale mailing address but technically they live in unincorporated Greenburgh.) There is no Edgemont library or other institutions that normally tap and conduct civic energies. Everything revolves around the schools. “People who live here hold a lot of the same values,” says Edgemont Superintendent Nancy Taddiken.
And at the top of those values is education.
As a result, the schools receive the lion’s share of the community’s time, energy, and resources. The local PTA and Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) is extremely active; each year it holds a huge dinner dance and silent auction, known as the Spring Fete, to raise money for teacher grants and capital grants for the school; last year it raised about $95,000. Other grants come from the Edgemont School Foundation, a private organization with its own endowment; last year it gave $160,000 for new laptop and hand-held computers to the school.
“Edgemont offers a wide range of curricular options for its students,” says David Borus, dean of admissions and financial aid at Vassar College, “and these kids take advantage of the opportunity.”
These varied factors have spawned a virtuous circle: affluent, well-educated, and competitive parents move to Edgemont for the schools; they throw their time, energy, money, and resources into the school, permitting their kids to excel academically and eventually to gain admission into elite colleges and universities, which in turn attracts a new cohort of affluent parents to Edgemont, ready to perpetuate the cycle. In other words, success breeds success.
Edgemont High School is not nirvana—no school is. In fact, the school can be a pressure cooker. “The downside of being ranked high is that there’s competition and stress,” admits Edgemont PTSA co-president Diana Ascher, whose three children have attended the school. “Everyone is aiming for the top schools.”
But despite these quibbles, Edgemont schools demonstrate what can be achieved in the classroom when all sides pull together: small size, deeply involved parents, and
devoted faculty spell success.
Gorton High School:
Training tomorrow’s doctors and nurses
Over the last year, the troubles of the Yonkers school system have received plenty of ink. But, despite all the gloom, there’s some bright spots in the state’s fourth largest city’s schools.
Since its creation in 1988, the Academy of Medical Professions, a special 400-pupil program offered by Yonkers’s Gorton High School (enrollment: 1,400), has propelled hundreds of graduates on to careers in the medical and health professions. Designed as a small learning community within a comprehensive high school, the Academy gives kids early exposure to careers in medicine, dentistry, nursing, hospital administration, and other healthcare professions. Students enrolled in the program follow a standard four-year academic curriculum that includes Advanced Placement courses and science research, but they also get the benefit of OJT (on-the-job training) without the “J.”
How? Through cooperative programs with local hospitals such as St. Joseph’s, and agencies like the local American Red Cross, students learn techniques like cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other medical skills.
Gorton is a magnet school, established in the 1980s when the city had completed school desegregation. The magnet program was designed to give parents incentives to remain in the integrated school system. Each year, children from across the city choose a school offering a curriculum that appeals to their interests. There are magnet schools in Yonkers for computer science, communications, law, and even television production. Gorton is the destination for students interested in healthcare or medicine.
Last year, Gorton established a Community Wellness Center, staffed by 150 students who ventured to other Westchester schools and institutions to disseminate information on topics such as AIDS and HIV infection, diabetes, obesity prevention, and nutrition. “The kids reached out to over 7,000 students,” says Gorton High School Principal Rocco Grassi. “They take it very seriously, like a mission.”
The Academy has had an impact on its students in more concrete ways: more than 90 percent of its students passed the Regents exams for English, Math, Science, and Social Studies; 90 percent of its graduates have gone on to some form of post-secondary education. Groton grads have been accepted into Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, Tufts, Georgetown, Boston University, and NYU.
Among recent graduates, at least three are currently attending medical school, eight are in nursing programs, and three are in pharmacy school. “I probably wouldn’t have known as early that I wanted to go to medical school if not for the Academy of Medical Professions,” says Leidy Soriano, a 2001 Gorton graduate currently enrolled at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education in Manhattan, part of the City University of New York. “The program gave me focus and direction.”
Dr. Clarice K. W. Morris, the coordinator for the Medical Academy, is proud of her school’s record. “I think of us as the icing on the cake. You need the filling, but the icing makes things exciting.”
A Footlight Parade
New Rochelle has been home to more than its share of artistic talent. Norman Rockwell, Ossie Davis, Fredric Remington, and Robert Merrill are just a few of the artists and performers who have resided in the Queen City. New Rochelle High School (NRHS) is making it its mission to foster a new generation of young artists.
Six years ago, the school launched its Performing And Visual Arts Education program (PAVE) to give kids the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive arts education within a traditional, structured academic setting. “If the high school is going to be successful, we need to maintain diversity and develop quality programs,” says Principal Donald Baughman. “I believe the arts are an integral part of a quality education.”
Evidently, so do New Rochelle students, who have made the program especially popular. PAVE has grown to encompass 300 students and 14 teachers this year, up from only 50 students when it started. Getting into PAVE is not easy: students must audition, though kids who are borderline may be accepted on a probationary basis. “The program has high standards, but all the kids get accepted, either fully or provisionally,” says Dr. Domenic Gustaferro, district supervisor for fine and performing arts.
The program is rigorous. For PAVE students, the school day starts at 7:30 am, nearly an hour before their peers begin their day. The program is broken down into four levels. During the first and second year, students take a survey course and choose from areas of concentration: vocal or instrumental music, visual arts, theater, and dance. (Concentrations that are not chosen as majors are studied as minors.) Vocal studies are an especially popular choice. “We introduce them to different styles and forms of music,” says Derrick L. James, NRHS director of vocal studies. In addition, PAVE students carry a normal academic course load.
Students who satisfactorily complete their first year—and 80 percent of them do—are promoted to PAVE II, to continue honing their skills with a greater emphasis on preparing for performances and recitals, and, in the case of the visual arts, the study of composition and art history. During their junior and senior years, PAVE students pursue independent studies in their fields and are encouraged to push their talents beyond what’s expected, whether it’s taking the lead role in a play, performing with an all-state choral group, or entering an art competition. “There’s a lot of pressure on these kids,” admits Baughman. “They put pressure on themselves.”
In the end, though, it’s worth it. How many other high schools can claim to put on an opera? In January, New Rochelle PAVE students performed Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors to thunderous applause. In the audience was Jacque Trussel, director of the voice and opera programs at Purchase College. “I was amazed with the focus these performers portrayed,” he says. “It’s a real tribute to the instruction they received and their love for the program.” In fact, Trussel later invited one of the male vocalists, a senior, to audition for his Purchase program. Every May, students in the program also showcase their talents in a public performance known as The Best of PAVE.
A number of PAVE students have gone on to study at Purchase College, New York University, The University of Hartford, and Pratt Institute. “They’re one of our best feeders,” says Bill Swan, an admissions counselor at Pratt. “The students get a very good visual arts foundation.”
Not all PAVE successes mean preparing students for careers as professional artists. Gustaferro remembers one student so shy he had trouble speaking in public. “By the time he graduated,” he says, “he’d performed the lead in Hair at the Fringe Festival in Scotland.” In June, NRHS will christen a $25 million arts center funded by a local bond. The building will house dance and art studios, rehearsal space, and a 210-seat theater that’s perfect for smaller plays and recitals. A summer conservatory is also in the works.
“Our goal is to make PAVE the pre-eminent high school arts program on the East Coast,” says Baughman. They’re off to a good start.
Aiding Immigrant Students to Stay in School
Port Chester is unusual among Westchester communities. Nearly half of the city’s population is Hispanic, many of them foreign-born, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. Among the school population, nearly 60 live in from a home where English is not the first language; some 18 percent are recent arrivals who are still struggling to learn English. Not so long ago, nearly 20 percent of freshmen at Port Chester High failed to graduate in four years.
So while other high schools across Westchester are busy preparing their students for admission to elite institutions, Port Chester serves an entirely different master.
“Our student population includes a lot of recent immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and some who come here without parents,” reports Assistant Principal Mark Santora. “So, our challenge is a lot different. We have to convince them just to stay in school.”
To do that, last year the high school launched its Freshmen Academy Program “to keep the kids focused on their education,” says Principal Mitchell Combs. The Academy program is derived from the Breaking Ranks School model created over the past decade or so at the Education Alliance at Brown University, to reach out to students who feel disenfranchised from their formal education.
“The high school of the 21st century must be much more student-centered and, above all, much more personalized in programs, support services, and intellectual rigor,” declares Joe DiMartino, director of secondary school redesign at the Education Alliance. “There must be a willingness to innovate and a willingness to put the needs of the student at the center of everything the school does. It’s a major rethinking of what high school is supposed to be.” Port Chester High School is one of 42 schools throughout New York and New England that have adopted the Breaking Ranks model (others include New Rochelle and Yonkers’s five high schools).
At Port Chester’s Freshmen Academy, the 220 students enrolled in the program this year are divided into blue and white “teams”; each team is assigned eight teachers and an administrator. Teachers and students spend the whole day together to forge stronger educational and personal bonds. The goal is to foster an environment in which instructor can become familiar with each student’s individual needs. Teachers also change their classroom style, embracing an interdisciplinary, team-teaching approach to learning. They meet among themselves and with students regularly to discuss classroom progress and, if necessary, call in students’ parents for talks. “We’ve never done anything like this approach before,” says Combs.
Has it worked? DiMartino cautions that it will take a few years before the dramatic changes in the classroom show up in higher test scores. “We feel pretty strongly that Port Chester has the potential to become an outstanding Breaking Ranks high school,” he says.
But administrators says they can already see some subtle signs of academic improvement. Last year, while the program was still in its pilot phase and limited to 100 students, the number of ninth graders failing one or more subjects dropped from 59 percent to 30 percent. Kids’ attitudes toward their education have improved too, and both freshmen disciplinary problems and the number of kids cutting class have dropped significantly.
“The students feel a responsibility to come to school because they’re more connected to the teachers and to the whole educational process in general,” says Santora.
Next year, the school plans to extend the Academy program to tenth grade. The school’s leadership considers these program as symbolic of its dedication to serving at-risk youth. “Right now, 87 percent of our students go on to some form of post-secondary education, which is impressive considering the population we serve,” says Santora.
Adds Combs: “We’re committed to keeping these kids from falling through the cracks.”
Peekskill High School:
Schools within Schools
Even for kids from well-off families with all sorts of advantages, high school can be a bear. For kids from less affluent communities like Peekskill, high school can turn into the last stop of their educational journey. Some five percent of Peekskill High students never finish high school, according to 2003 figures (the last year available) by the New York State Department of Education.
Kids are especially vulnerable during their first year of high school, education experts say, when they are no longer coddled and have to change class every 45 minutes and no longer receive much, if any, one-to-one attention.
The solution? Smaller schools and smaller classes. Smaller class size, research shows, generally improves student attendance, grades, and self esteem, and generally reduces the frequency of bad behavior and alcohol and drug use.
“In smaller communities, students are willing to work harder and take more risks,” says Patrick G. Halpin, executive vice president of the Institute for Student Achievement, a Lake Success, NY-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving academic performance. “Powerful relationships between students and teachers develop in this setting, increasing academic achievement and improving behavior, attendance, and overall performance because students feel more of a responsibility.” (Fact: roughly 70 percent of U.S. high school students attend schools with more than 1,000 students; some 50 percent attend schools with more than 1,500 students.)
But building new, smaller schools requires money, something that’s hard to come by in these times of strapped state and local budgets. So Peekskill High School officials have done the next best thing.
“I couldn’t build a new school, but I could take an existing one and divide it into four small learning centers,” says Superintendent of Schools Judith Johnson.
The Peekskill program, which was implemented last year, consists of two communities for freshmen and two for sophomores, each containing about 110 students who study and work together under the supervision of seven teachers and one guidance counselor. Funding for the program came from a $250,000 federal grant from the U.S. Fund for the Improvement of Education, secured with the aid of New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton.
Each school-within-a-school has its own distinct identity, culture, program, personnel, students, and budget. “It really puts an emphasis on teachers working together, especially those from different subject areas,” says teacher and small learning communities team leader Todd Newby. “The students get to share a common experience throughout the school day, not just one period.”
Teachers like it too. “As teachers we get the opportunity to collaborate, exchange ideas, and discuss—and closely monitor—student progress,” says Newby. Students, on the other hand, get the chance to work on assignments that cross disciplines, which, Newby says, makes their work richer and more meaningful. As a result, they tend to be more engaged and excited about their studies, he adds. And they just don’t think teachers are unfair taskmasters. “The students no longer regard teachers as an occupying force,” says Assistant Principal Jasper Cain.
The school year is divided into quarters, and in each quarter the students have one assignment that’s linked to a trip. Last quarter, the kids took a trip to the Jewish Museum of Heritage in Manhattan, a trip that was linked to a month-long study of the history of genocide and included readings in English and social studies. Up next: a spring trip to the Bronx Zoo.
The smaller learning communities encourage kids to feel less alienated and more secure in school, by encouraging stronger ties between