Alma Matters

Is Your Child’s Teacher Any Good?

Study after study has shown that the single most important factor affecting your children’s educational success is…their teachers. So, what can you use to evaluate your local teachers?
By: Dave Donelson

My senior English teacher, Virginia Frazier, stood less than five feet tall and wore knee-length dresses and spectacles on a beaded cord around her neck. But when she rousingly exclaimed, “A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come,” I forgot she looked like an overdressed barrel in practical shoes and lost myself in the language she recited. Her love of literature and unbending insistence on accurate writing has stayed with me for decades.

Nearly everyone can recall a teacher who made such a difference in his or her life. Now, though, sweeping reforms in our schools are demanded by everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Education to the President of the American Federation of Teachers. When even one of Westchester’s high schools is labeled “persistently lowest achieving” by State Education Commissioner David Steiner, more of us wonder if today’s embattled teachers are still inspiring kids and doing their jobs with passion and fire—or are they hanging on and hoping the hoopla all goes away. This is not unimportant. Study after study suggest that the only factor that impacts a student’s learning is…which teacher he or she gets, not the number of kids in a class or amount of money spent. But how do you know if your child’s teacher is one of the good ones?

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According to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, which has been developing models for improving teacher quality for 30 years, the best teachers share five qualities. They really know their subjects—not just ‘how to teach’; have good basic writing, math, and oral presentation skills; expect their students to achieve; are enthusiastic about teaching; can motivate even highly disadvantaged students to learn.

Factors that don’t affect the quality of teaching include having advanced degrees, a terrific personality, or high SAT scores.

Marguerita Street seems to embody the Institute’s goals. The 27-year-old teaches Integrated Algebra and a Regents math exam-prep course at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, the very institution labeled as one of New York State’s worst by Commissioner Steiner. In college, Street was a NASA Life Scholar and spent each summer working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “My senior year, I had a choice: Do I work with NASA or do I teach?” the Yonkers native says. “I chose to give back to my community through teaching.”

Street does what every expert I talked to says a good teacher should do: she engages her students with things that matter to them. “I talk about Jay-Z and how he uses math in making music, booking studio time, things like that,” she says. “I also have the music going while I talk about it, which helps bring the kids into the discussion.” Street teaches five classes daily with an average of 25 kids in each one. In addition, she’s available to students who want extra help during her lunch periods as well as before and after school. “If I have a student who is part of a family of eight people living in a one-bedroom apartment, I’m not going to press him about why he doesn’t have the homework.”

Fortunately, most of Westchester’s 3,500 high school teachers don’t have to deal with student home lives as disruptive as the one Street describes. But even teachers in Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High School and Bedford’s Fox Lane High School are under increasing pressure to perform. For most of our high schools, the pressure comes not from trying to meet state minimum standards but stems instead from our overachievers’ obsession with landing a slot at a top college, preferably one whose buildings are swathed in ivy.

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High grade point averages, resumés full of extracurricular activities, and sparkling, striking essays are all deemed essential to success in the college entrance competition, if not in life itself. Never to be overlooked, of course, are test scores, notably the SATs, in which Westchester students typically score high. (See “Just the Facts,” page 64.)

Another series of tests, the New York State Regents Examinations, looms large over Westchester high schools as well, though. While most of our schools score well, there is a growing movement to use student performance on the Regents (or other standardized tests) as one criterion for evaluating teachers. Cold, hard numbers are apparently necessary to hold teachers’ feet to the fire and thereby improve our education system, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In 2007, the State Legislature instructed the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to create what they called a “value-added growth model,” a system for tracking student test scores and using that data to find out how much learning is taking place in the classroom with individual teachers. The Board of Regents is expected to have that system in place by September. Every student is going to have an ID number—as is every teacher—and we’re going to be able to look at student growth over a one-, two-, or three-year period. The goal is to make some determinations about which teachers need improvement and which teachers are doing fine.

The prospect is daunting. While student test scores will be only one factor in teacher evaluation, not everyone believes the measures will be valid.

“Researchers from many perspectives agree that these tests are not yet sophisticated enough to be used effectively for teacher evaluation,” says Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST) and an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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“For one thing, the tests themselves, in most cases, are problematic. For another, teachers’ value-added scores—how much their students increased or decreased on tests from one year to the next—are not very stable.” The primary reason? The students being tested are different each year. “So a teacher who gets a high score one year might not get a high score the next.” Hatch says there is no one best method to use to judge a teacher’s performance. “Evaluations that rely solely on direct observation or those that focus solely on student test scores are both problematic.”

Ardsley Board of Education President Frank Hariton agrees, adding, “When I measure if a high school teacher is really performing, it’s not how much the kids have gone up in content knowledge over the year. Ideally, I like to see a teacher touch a life. To have a kid say, ‘Gee, this is what I really want to do’ more than, ‘This is what I have to do to get a higher score on the Regents.’”

“On the other hand,” says Mercy College Dean of Education Andrew Peiser, “the public demands accountability for their money. One of the only ways they see accountability is student performance on tests.”

If student test scores aren’t a good measure, how do we make sure our teachers are doing the best possible job? After all, median salaries for teachers in Westchester are the highest in the state at $88,857 (the statewide average is $62,332), according to the New York State United Teachers, and taxpayers would very much like to know what they’re getting for their money.

Until teachers in Westchester schools are granted tenure (typically after three years on the job), they are observed, mentored, and even videotaped to ensure they are meeting standards set by the state and their district. After tenure? The regular teacher evaluation process becomes much less intense. It varies from district to district, with differing degrees of formality and use of a variety of tools.

At high-performing Edgemont High, the administration tries to conduct multiple formal observations each year, but tenured teachers can also opt for a professional development plan that they put into place themselves, according to Principal Barry Friedman. A significant number opt for the projects, although the exact number varies greatly from year to year. “They file a proposal in the fall,” he says. “Once it’s approved by the principal, there’s a mid-year progress report, then a report at the end of the year that’s also filed with the central office. The idea of the projects is to improve teaching and learning.” Does it work? That’s a matter of opinion.

Yonkers Superintendent of Schools Bernard Pierorazio says his district’s approach is more structured. “Historically, teachers were given one evaluation at the end of the year,” he says. “We now have the administrators in every classroom every month. We do eight informal observations and two formal evaluations each year. That whole paradigm shift has changed the landscapes in our schools.” In other words, putting administrators into the classroom more often not only allows them to see how teachers do what they do, but sends a not-so-subtle message that they are expected to do it better.

In addition to frequent classroom observations, Eastchester Superintendent Marilyn C. Terranova and her staff look at student output—on an informal basis. “I really like to see student work and whether it illustrates what the teacher is doing,” she says. “The teacher teaches the information, facilitates the learning, guides the child, and then there is an outcome that the child has to step up to. You look at the work and see if it matches what the teacher taught. That’s the best measure of teacher success.”

Ultimately, according to Yonkers District Teacher Mentor Theresa Angelilli, “It’s important to self-evaluate. Excellent teachers make one hundred fifty evaluations every day by looking at the students’ faces. Are they getting it? Or are they not getting it?” Once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is really the only person who knows whether learning is happening or not. 

Which is why the whole concept of tenure is being challenged today. For the first three years, a teacher has absolutely no job protection. He or she can be removed for any reason whatsoever that does not violate his or her civil rights, according to the NYSUT. But “when somebody receives tenure,” says Blind Brook Superintendent William Stark, “it makes it infinitely more difficult—not impossible, but pretty darn expensive—to remove them. And it has to not only be with cause but with significant cause. Boards and superintendents have to think twice.”

Tenure exists for several solid reasons. Without it, teachers who held political views different from the administration’s would be vulnerable to firing, for example. And teachers without tenure would be less willing to teach creatively or to tackle controversial subjects. Without tenure, too, there could be pressure on teachers to pass undeserving students, particularly if they were related to someone influential in the community.

But there are dangers in the tenure policy, too. “Where else in the world can you work only for three years and then have that kind of job security for the rest of your life?” asks Mount Pleasant School Board President Francine Aloi. “I would like to see teachers re-assessed maybe every five years. Students are held accountable every single day in the classroom and I think teachers need to be accountable, too. Good teachers would welcome that because they have nothing to be afraid of.”

Tenure is a requirement under State education law, so it’s not likely anything will happen soon to change it. However, the State has taken other steps to improve the quality of instruction our kids get. New York now requires all teachers hired after 2004 to receive a minimum of 175 hours of continuing education every five years as a condition of certification. Many districts in the County already use some form of outside in-service training like the Scarsdale Teachers Institute, which provides professional development classes often taught by other teachers. Others conduct training during faculty meetings and most give teachers tuition reimbursement or financial incentives for compiling continuing education credits.

All teachers also are required by New York law to have (or be working on) a master’s degree as a condition of permanent certification, so most Westchester districts score high in that department. But Stanford University’s Erik Hanushek, the author of 14 books on the economics of education, reports, “Perhaps most remarkable is the finding that a master’s degree has no systematic relationship to teacher quality as measured by student outcomes.”

Dr. Terranova agrees, to a point, but argues, “Instead of the old master’s degree in secondary education, we’re looking for people to get advanced degrees in their content area. That’s indicative of scholarship. I know an art teacher who got a master’s outside her field in anthropology that brought different things to the art class. We want there to be a direct relationship to what they’re studying and what they’re teaching.”

Something else that tenure encourages is length of service, which is another area of some disagreement. “There isn’t a direct correlation between years of service and success in the classroom,” says Briarcliff High School Principal Jim Kaishian. “If you have five to ten years’ experience as a teacher, you know what you need to be remarkably successful. After ten years, there is very little you’re going to learn on the job that will inform your practice. In fact, past ten years, there are fewer incentives to continue to grow professionally.”

Still, Edgemont’s Friedman says, “Length of service is almost always good. I can’t imagine a time when turnover would be a good thing.” About 12 percent of Westchester high school teachers leave each year according to State records, a figure consistent with the national average of 13.2 percent.

Most teachers are in it for the long haul, which probably is good for our kids. Teachers like Yonkers High School’s Brigid McMasters are able to excite students about less-than-enthralling subjects like the Wilmot Proviso and the Ostend Manifesto because they love their work. “Teaching is not a job; it’s an avocation,” the 23-year-veteran says. “It’s a calling. It can’t be measured by the amount of work and hours and statistics.”

That’s why Elmsford’s Alexander Hamilton Principal Marc Baiocco finds his teachers at school at all hours. “If you go to the cafeteria at 7:30 in the morning, you’ll see four or five teachers sitting at tables with groups of kids,” he says proudly. “That’s where a great deal of relationship building takes place.”

As Blind Brook’s Stark says, “Teachers see themselves as having an awesome responsibility. Parents are models, too, but teachers have taken on a greater role as models in our society. Teachers are the gatekeepers of civilization.”

Dave Donelson’s high school career may have occurred in the Paleozoic Era, but he still remembers several outstanding teachers.


[My Favorite Teacher]

We Called Him by His First Name
Alan Shapiro, New Rochelle High School

He was a small man, runner-thin, and plagued by flaky, psoriatic skin. When excited, which was often, his blink rate escalated behind his round metal-framed glasses, though he always remained coiled in his seat at the head of the chair circle. Though ostensibly an English teacher, Alan’s passion was for ancient Greek art, history, and literature. Under his guidance, his students read unexpurgated Plato and Aristophanes—and no one ever sniggered at the dirty parts, of which there were many. I do remember some teasing when studying Alan’s wife’s slides of ancient Greek architecture, in which the documentary, sun-drenched pictures invariably featured a tiny, simian Alan standing in “for scale.”

Yes, Alan, his wife, chair circles, and ancient dirty parts—all for slouchy 16-year-old students at New Rochelle High School. I was lucky to have benefitted from a 15-year experiment in which the district-funded “3-Is Program“(the letters stood for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study) offered a challenge to the educational grind house of the regular high school experience. Alan designed the 3-I concept in collaboration with NYU education professor Neil Postman, with the goal to develop a model “school without walls” that eliminated grades, required courses, and required times of attendance. We earned credit in long, two-hour classes, unhurried by shrieking bells, where we sat in loose circles that offered no shelter at the back of the room. We argued and wrote essays, essays, and more essays—all sharply critiqued by Alan in red pen—with tiny, grudgingly positive checkmarks and long, deflating final analyses. Though casual about attendance, Alan was a killer about teenage bloviation. His discipline made my transition to college almost effortless and has lasted for my entire life.
—Julia Sexton

He Quoted The Simpsons
Brian Gutherman, Ardsley High School

Mr. Gutherman (no matter how many years have passed, it remains impossible to address former teachers by their first names) is a Westchester native, but I never would have guessed that as a 15-year-old in my freshmen Intensive Writing Seminar. Whenever he gave us brief glimpses into his life before teaching, it always sounded so worldly: he lived out in Los Angeles tutoring starlets, he produced TV series at Nickelodeon, he worked at a store that sold African art, he raised a Boxer puppy that he swore had a 28-word vocabulary (understanding words in English and Spanish).

Now that I’m roughly the age that Mr. Gutherman was when he was my teacher, I have no idea how he managed to cram all those life experiences in—then decide that the best way to use them was in the classroom, back near the neighborhood where he grew up. He managed to tell a crazy anecdote about his past, mix it with commentary about the previous week’s episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, and somehow build a lesson plan around it all that made us all better writers. Sure, he had the boundless energy, passion, intelligence, and stubborn and frustrating resistance to grade inflation that make all good teachers. But I’ve never met anyone who just enjoyed being a teacher the way Mr. Gutherman did, and, in turn, he made it a pleasure to be taught.

And, later, I went on to become a writer of sorts—so I guess whatever he did worked.
—Marisa LaScala



Head of the Class

Showcasing some of our county’s most outstanding high school teachers
We asked the principals of our 44 public high schools to recommend the brightest stars among their teachers. While some insisted they couldn’t choose just one or two (a special shout-out to the principal who tried to nominate his entire faculty!), our inbox was ultimately stuffed with compelling nominations. Here we present (some of) the best of the best.
By Robert Schork with Philip Corso
Photography by John Fortunato
Hairstyling by Kristy Rotonde and Anthony Fidanza of
Plush Salon in White Plains, makeup by Jill K. Imbrogno

Ross Abrams
Hastings High School (English)

➤ Says Principal Louis Adipietro: “He is often the last to leave the building because he is so busy helping students.”


Dan Delaney
Croton-Harmon High School (Special Education)

➤ “He always puts kids first,” Prinicipal Alan Capasso says. “He makes house calls to get students to school and gives them his cell number so they can call him if they need to.”
Susan Erichsen
Walter Panas High School (Special Education in English, Communication and Computation)

➤ “She is the first to try, then incorporate, new technology, and then make it her own for engaging students in ways not otherwise possible,” says Principal Susan B. Strauss. “Students believe in her as she believes in them.”

Anne Harrison
Ossining High School (ESL English)

➤ Says Principal Joshua Mandel, “Her classroom is filled with teenagers, none of whom were born in America or are native English speakers. Yet her students excel.”

Nancy Lee
Briarcliff High School (Biology)

➤ Declares Principal Jim Kaishian, “She is an outstanding biology teacher whose level of success with students is superlative. Perhaps most intriguing about her is her humility. Few people do so much for their community and ask for so little in return.”
Clarice K.W. Morris Gorton High School (Microbiology, and Anatomy and Physiology)
Says Assistant Principal Sandra M. Piacente, “Her love of medicine and innovativeness are captured in the success of the Academy of Medical Professions.”

Elizabeth Napp
White Plains High School (Global History)

➤ “She critically helps her foreign-born students not only understand global history but also comprehensively gather the information in a language they aren’t familiar with,” says Principal Ivan Toper.

Brenda O’Shea
Somers High School (Global History, Sociology, and World Issues in Context)

➤ Says Principal Irene Perrella, “Each year I have to turn students away from her World Issues class because we are oversubscribed.”

Andrew Scott
Pelham High School (United States History AP, United States History and Government, History through Film, Military History, and Social Studies Support)

➤ “He is the definition of a team player and astounds students with his depth of knowledge about history,” says Social Studies Department Supervisor Maria Thompson.

Tom Mormile
Sleepy Hollow High School (Multimedia and Health)

➤ “Tom Mormile began as a health teacher and athletic coach,” Principal Carol L. Conklin says. “Not even he could have envisioned trading in his sneakers for a TelePrompTer in the high-tech TV studio or replacing his sports trophies with awards, like getting honorable mention at the international Adobe Max Awards—beat out only by NASA.”




Stellar Programs for Stellar Students

There’s more to high school than writing term papers and memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem.
By Dave Donelson Photography by John Rizzo

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.

“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.

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.

“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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