By Esmé von Hoffman
For students who wish to escape typical secondary-school course offerings, New York City is the place to be. The Big Apple abounds with small, themed public high schools. The Department of Education’s listings might seem reminiscent of a European system in which students determine their career focus early in life. As an added benefit, the specializations of New York’s schools often inspire students to achieve in all their subjects.
In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg started a small-school initiative to replace gigantic public schools where graduation rates were often as low as 40 percent. The administration believed if students were put in close-knit educational communities and focused on a subject that interested them, they would become more engaged in learning. In 2007, a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation confirmed that these schools increased student performance and graduation rates. Now there are more choices for specialties in secondary education than ever. Picking a high school can be fun.
With this many options, however, it can be a challenge to determine which schools are best. Certainly some schools boast exciting programs, but fail to deliver results. Every year the Department of Education issues progress reports, quality reviews, and learning environment surveys to evaluate the success of a school. School administrators value the accuracy of these results. Here is a rundown of specialized programs in a variety of disciplines that excel in academic achievement and overall educational experience according to these published statistics as well as word-of-mouth reputations.
For those interested in community service, The High School for Social Justice: Heroes for Tomorrow is a top-ranked school, located in Flatbush on a half-acre farm. Incoming ninth graders are required to take a “welcome to community service” course where they learn practical skills such as making public service announcements and raising money. In addition, they research a topic in their community that they might wish to work on. In order to graduate, students are required to do at least 200 hours of community service but many do more than 900 hours. The school believes in general academic excellence and requires students to take courses in all standard disciplines. Principal Ben Schuldiner “firmly believes” that the community service theme encourages students to excel. “If a student feels mastery or ownership, that they are really good at something, such as taking care of an older person or walking [a rescue] dog, they feel that they are worth something, which encourages them to do better.” In fact, U.S. News and World Report rated the school one of the top 1000 high schools in America and twice awarded it a bronze medal. It has a 98 percent graduation rate – one of the two highest in Brooklyn – and of those, 100 percent go to college. This is particularly exceptional because all the school’s students are from minority backgrounds and most come from families with income below the poverty line. Shuldiner believes that the school’s small size, 400 students, enables the administration to know everyone.
For those interested in serving the community through the law, the High School for Law and Public Service has a reputation so good that the Department of Education singles it out as one of the success stories of civic-minded themed schools. Its extracurricular activities include participating in mock trial and attending Congressional hearings.
For the arts, no public high school is better known than Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The 1980 movie Fame, based on the institution, gave it a national reputation. The school boasts “conservatory training at a college level” and programs in dance, drama, instrumental music, technical theater, and vocal music. Among its alumni are Al Pacino, Eartha Kitt, Isaac Mizrahi, and the writer Esmeralda Santiago. Because success in the arts is never guaranteed, the school also has a stellar line up of advanced placement classes. It sends students to top arts colleges as well as prestigious academic institutions. The Department of Education’s progress report gives it an A, and its quality review is outstanding. Located in the artistic ambiance of Lincoln Center, the school’s facilities include an 1150-seat concert hall. Following a highly competitive audition process, this large school admitted 664 students into its current class.
For another kind of art, The High School of Fashion Industries is a high-ranked high school that allows students to major in Fashion Design, Fashion Merchandising, Visual Merchandising, Textile and Interior Design, Illustration and Graphics, or Jewelry Design. Established in 1926 in Chelsea near the Garment District, this themed school also helps prove Bloomberg’s theory of specialized education: students who entered this vocation-based high school with subpar English and math scores had met New York State standards for language arts and mathematics by their junior year. Their overall academic accomplishments had drastically improved by entering a themed school.
Green Schools, i.e. environmentally conscious schools, are a recent trend in education. There is now a nationwide Green Charter Schools network. New York boasts schools such as Green School: An Academy For Environmental Careers. The Department of Education and administrators in the school system, however, say judging the success of these green schools is difficult because most of them are so new. The Department of Education does note two environmentally related schools. Food and Finance High School focuses on culinary arts and finance and believes that food affects social and ecological health. With Cornell University’s help, the school introduces students to science as well as sustainable food production. Students scored highest in the sciences, not surprisingly, and second in United States history. Although relatively new, the institution receives excellent progress reports. It also brings all sorts of guest speakers and arranges internships. Founded in 2002, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School is small, annually admitting 115 students interested in marine science and technology. Students experience hands-on aquatic science and boat around the harbor. One success story from this learning institution is Luz Ovalle, who was failing ninth grade at a large public high school. After transferring to the Harbor School, she went on to win a full scholarship to Skidmore College. Harbor School students receive college counseling, work with the Hudson River Estuary to advocate for the well-being of New York harbor, and learn to monitor the health of fish, turtles, and other aquatic species in the school’s aquarium. Science has probably never seemed so enjoyable.
Two other schools have consistently earned top rankings. For 75 years, Aviation Career and Technical Education High School in Queens has trained students for careers in the aerospace industry. Academic activities also include science leadership institute, debate team, and National Honor Society. The High School for International Business and Finance garners accolades for school environment, student performance, and progress. Its mission is to provide students with top-notch academics as well as tools for competing in the global marketplace. According to school officials, special programs such as Virtual Enterprise allow students to “simulate all aspects of actual business including buying and selling, marketing, accounting, and administration.”
For students interested in teaching, Teacher’s Preparatory High School ranks well. The Marie Curie School for Medicine, Nursing, and Health Profession’s reputation has also grown among other school administrators. For more information on a wealth of other intriguing schools, go to the Department of Education’s website: schools.nyc.gov. Happy shopping!