OUR PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS
The Best Arts, Sports, Science, Honors and Special Ed Programs
In the County
By David Nayor Photography by Iko
First, clear any breakable objects within arm’s reach. Next, put on some relaxing music, have a soothing drink (perhaps a cup of herbal tea), and calm your nerves. Then—and only then—begin reading this article. For we can virtually guarantee that someone is going to be unhappy with it. It’s not that we’ve lowered our journalistic standards. It’s just that it’s time for our annual public high schools feature, and—as always—it’s sure to draw someone’s ire.
This year, we decided to write about schools that have distinctive programs in the arts, science, special education, advanced placement and athletics. Seems innocent enough—until you find that your school’s crown jewel is omitted from our admittedly unscientific survey. (FYI: we did ask all 39 of the county’s secondary school superintendents to name programs—in other schools—of which they thought highly. All declined. Said one: “If I name one that would be criticizing the others. I can’t do that!”)
“How could you write about great science programs and not list our school?” is the tone of the many of the letters we expect to receive.
The topic of schools, like religion and politics, is a highly personal, emotionally charged one. After all, schools are where we send our children and, as we parents all know, when it comes to our kids, nothing but the best will do.
So, let’s acknowledge beforehand that feelings may be hurt. Of course, that’s not our intention. This survey is hardly the last word on notable programs in our public high schools. We simply surveyed people in the know—educators, administrators, educational consultants, alumni, etc.—to try and come up with a list of schools offering quality programs in certain areas. We’ll grant that there are some fine programs we may have missed.
A number of factors go into evaluating any program. And the mix of ingredients—quality teachers, motivated students, great facilities and financial resources—vary from school to school and are almost impossible to quantify. Still, in our ongoing quest to provide you, our loyal Westchester Magazine reader, with useful, interesting and up-to-date information, we have come up with a small and, we admit, less than comprehensive list of notable science, arts, athletic, advanced placement and special education programs at some of the county’s public high schools.
A Little Good News, First
If you’re looking for a place to give your kid a leg up on the increasingly difficult and always mercurial college admissions process, you could do a lot worse than Westchester’s public high schools. As a state, New York is second only to Maryland for having the best academic standards, assessments and accountability. This evaluation is based on criteria such as: Has the state adopted standards in its core academic subjects? How does the state measure student performance? How does the state hold schools accountable for performance?
New York ranks first in the nation for allocation of resources (percentage of annual education expenditure allotted for instruction), with 68 percent of annual education expenditures spent on instruction. (The national average is 61.8 percent.) New York is also tied with North Dakota for second for the number of high school graduates enrolling in two- and four-year colleges. In New York State, 71 percent of graduates go on to college: in Westchester County, it’s between 80 and 90 percent (the national average is 65). “How many kids go on to college is a good thing to look at, and I’d like to see percentages somewhere in the 80s” says Jay Shotel, chairman of the Department of Teacher Preparation and Special Education at George Washington University. “It shows that the school is meeting its goal. Plus, income is higher over a lifetime for people who have college degrees. So, certainly, communities want their students to go to college.”
New York is tied for fifth in the nation for the lowest percentage of high school students to drop out of school (3.4 percent in the 2001-2002 school year). In Westchester, the dropout rate is even lower—1.5 percent, according to (1999) NYSED statistics.
It goes without saying that standards at our public high schools are high. “We start with the expectation that Westchester high school students are going to push the envelope by undertaking the most rigorous curriculum possible,” declares Richard Shaw, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Yale University. Obviously, top colleges are aware of this expectation. “We spend a good deal of time recruiting in Westchester and we find that students there are well prepared,” says Paul Sunde, associate director of admissions at Dartmouth College. “These students are excited about what they are doing in school, and we also notice a lot of energy coming from teachers and administrators. They care about the students and invest a lot of time in them.”
Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of Admissions at Harvard College, couldn’t agree more. “I think Westchester has very good schools and good applicants, and there are a bunch of reasons for that. The schools are run by good people and good teachers. A lot of the success can be attributed to discerning and conscientious parents with high standards. Westchester is a well-run community, and people are willing to put significant financial resources into their public schools.”
One measure of a quality high school program is the opportunities it provides for students to do work and research beyond that offered in the traditional Regents curriculum. The county’s close proximity to Manhattan has enabled many motivated, bright and well-prepared Westchester high school students to avail themselves of Columbia University’s prestigious Science Honors Program. Now in its 45th year of existence, SHP allows students to take college-level science and math classes like Relativity and Quantum Theory and Experiments in Genetic and Molecular Bacteriology on Saturday mornings at the university’s Morningside Heights campus.
Historically, Westchester has been well represented among the student population. “We do get a lot of applicants from public high school students
in Westchester,” says SHP Director Allan Blaer. “Right now, there are approximately 500 students enrolled in our program, and I’d say about a quarter of them are from Westchester.”
IBM’s Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights also offers an Honors Math and Science (HMS) program for high schoolers seeking college-level enrichment in math, science, computer science and technology. Last year, students from 24 public high schools in Westchester participated. With so many schools taking part in HMS, there must be a number of exceptional science programs at area secondary schools. Still, are there any programs that appear to rise above the rest?
“I can’t comment on every program,” says Marie Gentile, senior manager for education and media outreach at the Siemens Foundation, the organization that sponsors the prestigious annual Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology, which awards scholarships to high school students ranging from $1,000 to $50,000 for runners-up to $100,000 for the overall winners. “However, Yorktown High School seems to be a regular name that pops up on our list.”
In November, twins Ami and Ashley Amini, seniors at Yorktown High School, advanced to the competition’s Middle States Regional Final at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The Aminis’ project, which focused on the genetics that are responsible for muscle degradation and growth, was one of six selected by a panel of renowned scientists.
Credit the Aminis’ achievement to their natural abilities—and to Yorktown Heights’ Authentic Science Research Program (ASRP).
“Yorktown’s ASRP stands apart,” says Yorktown High School Principal Dan Brenner.
“Down the road, I think that people will be looking to this as the model program to follow.”
Students in the Yorktown ASRP are given the opportunity to research and learn about anything that interests them in the area of science or technology, and then begin designing and conducting experiments under the aegis of a top scientist. (Students wishing to participate in the ASRP must first receive a recommendation from their freshman science teacher.) Students can earn up to four college credits for their work from SUNY Albany.
“This is the third year of our Authentic Science Research Program under the tutelage of Michael Blueglass, and there’s huge enthusiasm for it on the part of both students and teachers,” Brenner says.
Yorktown, though, is not the only high school in Westchester offering a quality science education, nor was it the first. Since it was founded 13 years ago by teacher Dr. Robert Pavlica, Byram Hills High School’s ASRP has produced 39 Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists, and 11 finalists. The Byram Hills program requires students to read extensively about a topic, then design a research project that is carried out in a lab, university or hospital with a working scientist as their mentor. These projects are then entered in the Intel Science Talent Research competition. Fifty-seven percent of the program’s graduates have gone on to pursue medical degrees and PhDs in science and engineering. So successful is the three-year Byram Hills program that 170 schools around the country have modeled programs after it.
Other schools offering excellent opportunities for fledgling Einsteins and Newtons include Pelham Memorial High School, which boasts a $60,000 biotechnology lab, and Ossining High School, whose science research program yielded two Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists and one first- and two third-place finishers at the 2002-2003 Westchester Rockland Junior Science Humanities Symposium.
Advanced Placement (AP) courses are nothing new. From modest beginnings in 1955, the AP program has grown to become a regular part of curricula for students wishing to challenge themselves with college-level classes while still in high school. These classes assume a high level of motivation and discipline by students and, needless to say, are looked upon favorably by college admissions counselors.
Why are APs important for a high school? “Because you’re stretching your kids as far as they can go,” says George Washington University’s Shotel. “But the socioeconomic context should be considered. If you have a school in a high-income district, and 50 percent of their students take APs, that might not be enough. And, conversely, if you have a low-income school district and only 20 percent of the students take APs, the school might be doing very well.”
In Westchester, the schools that performed best on Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews’s now famous Challenge Index—an index which measures how much students are challenged in a school by a formula dividing the number of Advanced Placement tests taken at a school by the number of graduating seniors—were Edgemont, Horace Greeley, Mamaroneck, Rye, Scarsdale, Ardsley, Bronxville and John Jay. (To make it onto Mathews’s list is an honor—it means the school is at the top 4 percent of all schools in the nation.)
While there’s no denying that Advanced Placement courses play an important role in college admissions, even Shaw of Yale cautions that they are not the determining factor in deciding who gets admitted. “If one school only offers five AP classes and another offers 13, we don’t penalize the kid who doesn’t have the same opportunity,” he says. “It’s more important that a student take advantage of what’s offered.”
For some, the AP is no longer the standard by which they measure the quality of a
school’s education programs. Some private high schools, including Fieldston in Riverdale, have discontinued their AP programs (although students can still take the exams). Why? Ginger Curwen, Fieldston’s director of communications, answers: “Schools like Fieldston have their own sets of advanced electives. Plus, the AP courses are usually surveys and so less appealing and satisfying to both students and faculty.” Some colleges, including Harvard, restrict credit given for AP classes taken.
Still, with the great weight that many colleges place on Advanced Placement course work, it would be silly to deny their importance. And the number of AP courses continues to rise each year, as does the number of the exams administered. At Mamaroneck High School, which has seen its Challenge Index ranking rise nationally from 131st place to 79th place over the past three years, the numbers of students participating in the program are also up. According to the district, in 2000, 201 students took 420 AP exams; in 2002, 320 students. In 2003, 290 MHS students took 689 exams in 19 subjects, including science, art, math, literature, and physics.
Since 1996, the number of Rye High School students taking AP has more than doubled. In the 2002 academic year, 56 percent of RHS juniors and seniors were enrolled in 20 different AP courses.
Why do APs matter so much? Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, a former Westchester resident (his son Peter graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1995), says, “APs and IBs [International Baccalaureate] are the only existing, consistent, incorruptible measures of rigor in high schools. There’s no way to dumb down an AP or IB course without being caught—if you insist that everyone enrolled in the course take the exam.”
Are high schools encouraging their students to take APs? Mathews says no, that, in fact, most actively restrict access to them by requiring a certain grade point in the subject for admission to a course. Unfortunately, he says, “B and C students would most benefit from exposure to college level courses and exams, so that they don’t crumble and drop out at the first difficult class in college. The best predictor of success in college for a high school student is how many difficult classes he has taken.”
Often the number of AP courses offered simply depends on the size of the student body. Relatively small Edgemont High School, which on Mathews’s most recent Challenge Index (for the class of 2002) ranked 16 nationally, offers 12 AP courses and had an enrollment of 847 in 2002. Similarly, Pelham Memorial High School, which ranked 186 on the most recent Challenge Index, offers 13 AP courses (up from 9 in 2001). PMHS had 650 students enrolled in 2002.
New Rochelle High School, which also made it onto Mathews’s list coming in at #335 nationwide, offers 21 AP courses, ranging from Latin to art history, and has a student body numbering just over 3,000. Nearly 700 of the school’s 3,000 students participate in at least one AP course, which may explain why 90 percent of its graduates go on to college. According to a 1999 study by the U.S. Education Department, students who take some sort of accelerated high school course are more likely to go on to and graduate from college.
Special, Career and Technical Education
No discussion of special and technical/career education programs at Westchester high schools would be possible without first mentioning
BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services). Created in 1948 by the New York State Legislature, BOCES is a public organization intended to provide shared educational programs and services to local school districts. BOCES services are created when two or more districts determine they have similar needs that can be met by a shared program. Sharing services is a way for less affluent districts to provide programs they might not be able to otherwise afford. “If there’s a need, a program will be created,” says Tom Gill, director of special education at Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights.
BOCES does not confer diplomas. Career, technical and special needs students graduate from their local districts with Regents diplomas. And the success rates for these programs have been growing. For example, the number of special education students passing the Regents English exam has increased in recent years from 3,414 in 1996-97 to 10,457 in 2001 (55 or above is considered a passing grade). During that same period, the number of students taking the exam has jumped from 4,419 to 15,348. In 1999, 45 percent of school-age special education students were in integrated settings (80 percent of their day was spent in general education classes). That number jumped to 49.5 percent in 2001.
“The kids in our career and technical high schools do extremely well,” says Claudia Fuller, director of the Center for Career Services for Southern Westchester BOCES. “In
Fact, 95 percent of our students go on to college or full-time employment.”
Traditionally, the mother of all career and technical schools in Westchester has been Yonkers’s own Saunders Trade and Technical High School, with some 1,400 students. Saunders is the only school in New York State designated as a New American High School (NAHS), schools where students are expected to meet challenging academic standards and acquire the skills necessary to pursue either higher education or a career. Fuller says that Saunders Tech’s “school-to-work philosophy” makes it stand apart from more traditional high schools. “During their senior year, students do internships with local businesses, many of whom provide scholarships,” she reports. The school even has its own catering service, Lenoir Estate, overlooking the Hudson River, that frequently prepares food for city and school functions. “It’s been shown that students who have taken vocational classes complete college at a higher rate than kids from just an academic background,” Fuller says.
For those students needing more individualized attention, Gill of Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES says there are many districts with quality alternative high schools, including Yorktown, Lakeland and Croton. (See feature entitled “Westchester’s Alternative High School Options,” on page 47.) “We also run our own Regional Alternative High School on the Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES Fox Meadow campus,” he says. Students who attend RAHS do so because they are struggling in the traditional setting of their local school districts. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to send these kids back to a regular classroom. For those who don’t go back, we have a diploma track, and we graduate 30 kids a year.”
Who doesn’t relish the thought of spending a crisp autumn afternoon rooting for their favorite football or field hockey team? In recent years, Westchester public high school kids have taken home their fair share of team and individual awards. Just this past November, the New Rochelle High School football capped a perfect 12-0 season by defeating two-time defending state champion Webster Schroeder High of Monroe County (suburban Rochester) 32-6 in the Class AA state final at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. That same day, Rye High School lost in the Class B state title game. In October, Ossining High School senior Jenna Loeb became the first player in 24 years to win a third tennis singles titles at the season ending state tournament. Last June, senior Chris Vasami pitched a three-hit shut out to help Mamaroneck High School capture its first sectional baseball title in 40 years.
If you want to assess the quality of a school’s athletic program, it helps to know what sport you’re discussing, says Section One Executive Director Greg Ransom. “Yorktown is always good at lacrosse and Mt. Vernon seems to have great basketball teams. A lot of schools have good football programs and there doesn’t seem to be a common denominator to their success.” While facilities can make a difference—many schools, including Horace Greeley in Chappaqua, Eastchester High and John Jay High, are now putting in or have put in synthetic fields to keep promising athletes from going the private and Catholic school route—experts say state-of-the-art facilities are not the most important factor. “Great facilities will help you fill your rosters but they won’t make you a winner” Ransom says. “When you look at a team that does well year after year, you’ll usually find a coach who’s built a quality program and a community that supports it.”
“When you talk about football, Dobbs Ferry and Harrison come to mind,” says Walter Eaton, assistant director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Harrison won 30 games and lost only 5 in the past 3 years; Dobbs Ferry won 44 games, lost only 2, and went on to the state semifinals in 2003. “We don’t know why they’re successful,” Eaton says. “However, we believe that success will always follow if you conduct yourself in a responsible fashion.”
ournal News Assistant Sports Editor Mike Rose says Horace Greeley, John Jay, White Plains and New Rochelle field consistently good teams in many sports. “These schools have a lot of quality coaches, a large student body from which the coaches can draw players and good facilities,” Rose says. Starting athletics early, he believes, can also have a positive effect. “In Yorktown, kids pick up lacrosse sticks before they can walk. It’s part of the tradition in that community.”
Rich Beckley, John Jay High School’s director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics, attributes his athletes’ success on the field to the values they learn off it. Says Beckley, “Our athletes are also involved in charitable causes. Right now the varsity boys’ basketball and varsity girls’ soccer teams are raising money for 55 students at the Edenwald Center in Pleasantville, which is a therapeutic residential treatment facility. I think good character helps athleticism. The goal of any athletic program shouldn’t be to just win games but to provide experiences that are character building so that the athletes can leave the program as better citizens and better individuals.” The school in the past year saw four kids who went through its programs sign NCAA Division I scholarships.
You would expect any affluent, culturally sophisticated enclave like Westchester County to be a hotbed for the arts. Indeed, the names of Westchester residents often show up on the donor list of some of the country’s most prestigious arts organizations. So it should come as no surprise that many of the county’s public high schools support the arts as well by providing opportunities for their students to learn about and participate in the performing and fine arts. At last year’s annual Helen Hayes High School Theatre Awards, 14 Westchester public high schools took home honors, including Briarcliff High School, which won for Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical, and Eastchester High School, which captured the prize for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography.
“Briarcliff, Horace Greeley and Pleasantville all seem to do well consistently. The programs at these schools are well-funded, and actively supported by the community,” says Danielle Rudess, director of the Helen Hayes Youth Theatre and the awards show’s producer. She points out that Pleasantville’s program has 200 parent volunteers who do “everything from sewing costumes to staging benefits.” And, she notes, adult involvement is vital to the success of these programs. “All of these schools have at least one shining star—parent, teacher, administrator—who acts as a mentor.”
And, it seems, all have their school’s support. “The administration and board of education are really behind our program,” says Briarcliff High School’s choral director and drama teacher Kathleen Donovan-Warren. “The arts are part of our regular curriculum. We offer our students classes in drama, dance and music theory.” Over 200 of the school’s 600 students participate in the performing arts.