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Making the Grade: Examining the Valley’s High Schools

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High school students are no strangers to the nerve-wracking experience of facing a barrage of evaluation numbers — report cards, grade point averages, SATs, Regents scores, and more — that essentially determine a young person’s academic future.

The state gives out its own report cards, too — these rate the schools themselves, offering an in-depth look at how effective they are in educating our youngsters.

The annual New York State Report Cards, compiled by the state Department of Education and other sources, present a dizzying multitude of data. They measure districts’ accomplishments, and compare stats involving everything from the number of kids who graduate to testscores, expenditures per student, whether a school has improved (thus ranking it “High Performing” or “Gap-Closing”), whether it’s made

“Adequate Yearly Progress,” or declined in average test scores compared to the previous year.

While kids, parents, and educators alike argue that test results shouldn’t be the only criteria — or indeed, the true focus — for learning, it’s a fact of educational life that numbers have become increasingly important tools to assess student accomplishments.

The controversial No Child Left Behind Act has been a key stimulus in the nationwide push for higher test scores — and in a trickle-down manner, it’s resulted in a success-driven mindset for many districts, schools, educators, administrators, and students.

Still, the numbers look encouraging here in New York State. A number of schools in the Valley — 65 to be exact — have shown progress in their overall state Report Card grades.

And while the accompanying charts offer a comparison of various schools and their numerical academic rankings, we also spoke to administrators at four Valley high schools — all of which were named to the state’s “High Performing/Gap Closing” list — to find out how they’re creating an innovative, effective learning environment.

Each school’s approach illustrates the importance of creativity, accountability, and motivation — along with straightforward academics — in making education viable for our kids.

And, in these days of a roller-coaster economy and painful state budget cuts, it’s encouraging to see the many ways in which parents, staff, and students keep our schools thriving, in times when it’s often tough to even survive.

» First class: Beacon High School, Dutchess County

See last page of article for statistics, including average SAT scores

 
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Beacon High School

Along with art, algebra, and other “normal” high school courses, students at Beacon High School can take part in a real-life spinoff-of-sorts of the popular TV crime-show genre — you might call it “C.S.I. Beacon.”

Interim high school principal Tony DiMarco explains: “One of our most popular courses is a forensic science class, in lieu of freshman study hall. The students love it, and it touches on all the sciences. It’s very popular, and we hope to expand it.”
In addition to offering cool courses, the school’s administrators focus on open communication and fostering a sense of responsibility in students, which has resulted in dips in tardiness and no-shows, and fewer dropouts, DiMarco says.

“We’re really visible — the administrators are out in the hallways with the kids. And I personally speak with students when they’re tardy,” he says. “The idea is to get our students on track to being accountable.”

The school aims to deal sooner, rather than later, with kids who show signs of academic or behavioral challenges. It offers, for instance, a Response Team intervention program for challenged kids. “They can meet with teachers to get help in improving academics, or talk about their issues,” he says.

Beacon also provides a freshman seminar program that gives added support to “newbies” who might have had academic or other problems in middle school; kids in all grades can tap into after-school programs to get extra help.

soccer ball

The school partners, too, with Dutchess Community College, offering nine accelerated courses including English and social studies that carry college credits. “We also have Regents review classes; we do a lot to help prepare the kids,” says DiMarco.

Families and the surrounding Dutchess County community unite to keep the school vibrant. Beacon High conducts ongoing events such as a holiday coat drive — in 2009 donating about 100 pieces of outerwear to local charity, DiMarco says.

The school plans to launch another nifty class this year that gives hands-on training for about a dozen kids who might eventually want to go into sales or service trades, DiMarco explains.

“Bulldog Cleaners” will be a fully functioning dry-cleaning service totally run by students. “We partnered with a local dry cleaner, who will pick up, clean, and deliver the items,” he says, “but the kids will operate the business.” And we’re not talking “play money” here — DiMarco says students will open their own bank account and take in items to be cleaned from school staff customers at a special store in the school. They’ll bag and tag the clothes, learn to write up bills, tote up taxes, and keep business records.

And while Beacon High works hard at educating its kids and keeping them enthusiastic, the administration is keeping a wary eye on ongoing state budget cuts.

“We’ve had to tighten our belts, but so far, fortunately, there have been no major reductions here,” says DiMarco. “All these cuts and reductions make everybody in the education field nervous. The bottom line is to support our kids in the best way we can.”

Next class: Washingtonville High School, Orange County
 
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Washingtonville High School

Kids come first at Washingtonville High School, says principal Michael Rossi. “We really focus on student-centered education,” he says, adding that to be effective, a school should ideally motivate and engage students — not just offer rote-learning in order to meet mandated state or federal requirements.

“It’s important to encourage kids to be accountable for their own learning, and to teach them skills such as problem-solving that helps increase confidence,” he says.

“A main goal here at Washingtonville High is to maximize our students’ education in the most effective way,” he adds. The staff, for instance, is constantly evaluating and adjusting its curriculum to enhance learning.

To that end, for example, the grade 9-12 school in Orange County has turned to a block-scheduling approach. “Students take four periods a day, of 82 minutes each.”

That way, Rossi says, teachers and students have more time to dig into a subject — compared to standard shorter periods, when it sometimes seems like the class-dismissal bell rings almost as soon as the learning gets started.

“Also, kids aren’t as overwhelmed with homework at the end of the day, because they accomplish more in class,” he says. Still another plus of block scheduling, Rossi says: “It gives students a good sense of the structure of what college courses will be like.”

Washingtonville High boasts its share of well-known past students including Hollywood’s Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for The Bourne Identity and the rest of the Bourne trilogy, and recently directed the Oscar-nominated 2007 George Clooney legal thriller Michael Clayton — filmed partly in Orange County. (Actor Mel Gibson also attended Washingtonville for a year before his family moved to Australia in the 1960s.)

baseball

Celebrities aside, the school of about 1,600 students has a solid academic focus, with a full Regents program, advanced placement courses, and added assistance for kids who require extra tutoring.

“We encourage collaborative teaching, and have tools such as support teams and teaching assistants in the classrooms,” Rossi says.

The school itself expanded in 2007 with a new $9 million wing that houses a dozen added classrooms and three high-tech computer labs.
Despite budget cuts being the norm just about everywhere these days, Washingtonville’s extracurricular activities such as sports and school clubs have so far remained intact.

“A lot of districts are in economic dire straits,” Rossi says. “We’re always trying to think outside the box, and work well and creatively with what we have to spend.”

Parents are also active participants in the school, Rossi says, and its kids reach out to the surrounding community, too.

In May, for instance, Washingtonville High honor society students will host a very special senior prom. Not for graduating seniors — that one’s later in the year — this dance is especially for senior citizens who live in the region. Elders are invited to the school cafeteria, which will be spiffily decorated by students. There, the seniors can enjoy a dinner, then dance the night — or at least the early part of the evening — away, at the free event.

Next class: Germantown High School, Columbia County
 
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Germantown High School

Academics and community are intricately united in smaller, more rural school districts, such as Germantown in Columbia County. The entire Germantown Central school district contains 606 students, and one building houses classes from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade.

“We watch a lot of the kids grow up, from the day they first enter kindergarten to the day they get their high school diploma. That’s pretty special,” says Germantown High Principal Karol Harlow.

And it makes for hands-on administration. “The other day, a parent called us to say her first-grader had lost a lens from her eyeglasses in the playground and couldn’t function without them,” says Harlow, whose high school students span 7th to 12th grades. “Our elementary school principal wasn’t available just then, so I put my coat on and took the first-grader out, and together we searched for her lens. Luckily, we found it. Then the custodian found a little screw and helped put her glasses back together. That’s the way it is around here — as a principal, you’ve got to be ready for anything. We’re not hidden away in some remote office,” laughs Harlow.

Academically, the school offers the full range of standard high-school studies — plus advanced courses, too. “We’re too small for a full-fledged honors program, but we have Advanced Placement courses in topics like English and U.S. history,” she adds.

Germantown High also has a special link-in with Columbia-Greene Community College, located in Hudson. “It’s an arrangement where some of the kids take courses like English, poly sci, Spanish, and calculus here in our building for about one-third of the cost they’d pay at Columbia-Greene. And they get credits for both high school and college,” says Harlow.

Also, early this year, the district plans to launch an online program in which kids can take several elective courses that otherwise might not be available “live” at the school.

Germantown plans, too, to offer a GED high school equivalency program for students who can’t, for whatever reason, attend regular classes and still qualify to graduate. “We’ve been approved by the state for it, and already have about eight students interested, so that will be an added educational option,” she says.

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Motivating the students and staff, plus getting parents involved, is key to supporting the kids, Harlow says. “It affects the overall school climate. So we do things like have parents’ visiting day. We don’t mail out the first report card of the year, parents come in to get it, and they go around and meet all the teachers — that’s for all the students’ parents, from K to 12. Everyone gets to know each other, and if the kids are having a problem, it can be dealt with sooner rather than later.”

Germantown also seeks to keep staff abreast of the latest teaching and motivational techniques, says Harlow.

“For instance, a number of teachers went to a professional development day where the topic was to be ‘Improving Regents Exam Scores.’ They expected to come away with new test-taking strategies. But it turned out to be more about ways to get kids motivated, and we’ve adopted some of the ideas in the classrooms. For instance, when teachers give a test, it was suggested that after about 20 minutes, everybody stop and take a ‘brain break,’ then begin again. Things like this help kids learn — and helps boost their test scores, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Germantown, like all school districts, lives under the seemingly endless shadow of possible budget cuts.

“Last year, the local population was down a bit, and we had a number of reductions to our staff,” notes Harlow. “We’re attempting to do more with less.” Fortunately, she says, they haven’t as of yet had to cut any sports or extracurricular programs. “But we’ve had to be more careful; like if only a small number of students sign up for a particular class, we might not offer it.”

For the most part, she says, Germantown High kids do tend to buckle down and learn, and have fun while they do it.

“We seek ways to reward kids for achieving. Sometimes a school can get bogged down — not in the reward part, but in the ‘consequences’ part.” For instance, in the last school quarter, she says, “Every eighth grader passed every class. So we made a big banner with every student’s name on it, and it’s hanging in the cafeteria. We had a breakfast for the kids and congratulated them.”

A sense of unity plays out in other ways, too. Harlow says that during the recent holidays, one of the school’s clubs auctioned off a Christmas tree and handmade ornaments as a fund-raiser. The person who won it was a school staff member, and he displayed the tree in his office.

“Then we heard about a local family we knew, who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree. He offered to give it to the family, and it helped them have a happy holiday,” she says.

Next class: Brewster High School, Putnam County
 
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Brewster High School

“Our students tell us they appreciate the fact that there’s so much genuine interaction between faculty and kids here,” says Kieran Stack, an assistant principal at Brewster High School in Putnam County. “‘People listen to you,’ the kids say, and we’re proud of that.”

About 1,200 students attend Brewster High. Most take a full roster of English, social studies, math, and science courses, and the school provides support and tutoring when kids need an extra boost in their studies, according to Stack. He, along with Principal Matthew Byrnes and Assistant Principal Michelle Gosh, head the school’s faculty of about 110 teachers and support staff.

Just this January, the school district announced that 65 Brewster High students earned AP Scholar status by the College Board for top achievements in the May 2009 Advanced Placement exams. According to the district, only about 18 percent of the roughly 1.7 million high school kids around the world who take the test rank that high.

And while it’s been acknowledged by the state for academic excellence, Brewster High doesn’t focus exclusively on test-taking. “We’ve been moving away from a strong focus on standardized testing; we also include other ways of evaluating and motivating students,” says Stack. He gives a lot of the credit for this shift to Brewster High’s Principal Byrnes, who emphasizes interactive, innovative learning.

“There’s a great deal of give-and-take between teachers and students,” Stack says. “We offer programs like a leadership class, and invite students to give ideas to the administration; kids in the upper grades also mentor the younger classes.”

About three-fourths of the kids at Brewster High do more than just hit the books, Stack says. They’re active in events like sports, as well as music, the student literary magazine and newspaper, and a variety of clubs, ranging from animal rights to philosophy.

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“When I came here about a decade ago, we didn’t even have a school band,” recalls Stack. Since then, it’s garnered high status, and the band has marched in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and played at Disney World in Florida.

The school’s fine and performing arts program is indeed widely acclaimed. “It’s an avenue that allows kids to develop their art and performing skills. Kids fight to get into them — not literally, of course!” Stack laughs.

Students present at least two elaborate stage productions each year, along with a fund-raiser “dinner theater” in which the kids perform as the audience noshes. Art-wise, the school offers everything from ceramics and sculpture to computer graphics. And despite the ever-present specter of budget cuts, Stacks says Brewster High has been able, so far, to maintain its curriculum and extra activities.

“We’ve also seen a growing interest in our NJROTC program,” Stack says, adding that the U.S. Navy-sponsored courses offer life skills training, placing emphasis on focus and motivation, which kids can use anytime, anywhere. There’s no obligation for participants to later enroll in military service unless they choose to, says Stack, who points out that Brewster’s NJROTC program was recently saluted with a 2009 Unit Achievement award by the Navy for excellence.

“Our school encourages kids to excel academically and to develop other interests,” says Stack. “It used to be kind of taboo for high school kids anywhere if you wanted to take ‘artsy’ classes, or — at the opposite end of the spectrum — if you wanted to enroll in ROTC. Kids would be ridiculed for one or the other. But we encourage our students to pursue what they’re interested in. Along with academics, it all helps students grow into well-rounded adults.”

Next class: A lesson on cyber-bullying
 

girl on computerPhotograph by Ana Blazic; courtesy of Shutterstock

Cyber-bullying: From the playground to your PC

Remember the scene in Grease where Rizzo tells Marty she’s knocked up and not to tell… but Marty runs out and tells Jan, who tells someone else, who tells someone else, and the whole drive-in knows by the time Rizzo leaves the bathroom? The next day, girls sneer and whisper, her boyfriend confronts her, and she sings a song about staying strong. Typical teenage behavior, right? Maybe in 1959.

Today, Rizzo’s pregnancy likely would have been plastered across the Facebook pages of her classmates. She would not have to guess what sort of judgment her peers were passing down, because she would be able to read it right there in cyberspace, and it would be tenfold crueler than anything ever said to her face. Her song would be one of complete betrayal, exclusion, and cruelty, and if she didn’t sing it to the principal, a therapist, or her parents, she might do so in a suicide note. Welcome to the decade of the cyber-bully.

Cyber-bullying can take many forms. The term refers to the spreading of rumors or secrets via social networking sites, mobile phone technology, or instant messaging; setting up hate or slam sites; posting humiliating videos on YouTube; outing (exclusion from a group); and sexting (the viral sending or receiving of sexually explicit text messages or pictures). While the damage is done with a simple click of a mouse, the effects can be devastating, even deadly.

In 2008, in what was considered to be the nation’s first cyber-bullying trial, jurors heard testimony about a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after receiving numerous online taunts from a fictitious boy who, it was later revealed, was actually the mother of one of the teenager’s friends.

“For victims, self-esteem is rocked, identity is challenged. They either internalize the aggression, or externalize it, like what happened at Columbine,” says Brian Gerety, executive clinical director of the Therapy Center in Bedford Hills.

cyber bullyPhotograph by Monkey Business Images; courtesy of Shutterstock

The explosion of new technology has fueled the increase in cyber-bullying among children and teens. MySpace burst onto the World Wide Web in 2003, igniting the social networking craze. Members create a homepage with pictures, interests, blogs, music, and videos, and can collect “friends” by sending requests to other members; friends are then able to post notes on each other’s pages (called “walls”) for all to see. Facebook further cemented the social networking obsession for the college set when it was introduced in 2004. That same year, 40 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 19 were using cell phones, with the number projected to increase another 15 percent by 2006. The preoccupation with tech-driven communication is so pervasive, the New Oxford American Dictionary’s official Word of the Year for 2009 was “unfriend” — to remove someone as a friend from your social networking site.

Teen preoccupation with virtual communication has had some unexpected consequences. “The close-knit family atmosphere is a thing of the past,” Gerety points out. “With the Internet, there’s a forum for social networking and expression of feelings that previously wasn’t available; kids don’t need to speak to their parents.” With the proliferation of tech-chat forums — from e-mail to Twitter to gChat — the need, or tendency, to actually speak to another person seems to be fading. “There’s been a lot of talk about this generation being less empathetic,” posits Gerety. “It’s easier to bully someone in cyberspace because there’s a certain detachment that allows the bully to be more spontaneous and free-ranging. Because you don’t actually have to confront the person, you can be much crueler.”

Westchester’s Dr. Joel Haber, the “Bullycoach” and founder of RespectU, agrees: “Bullying used to be physical and verbal, but now it’s more about exclusion. It’s easy to send mobile bombs to leave a kid out, shut them down, be mean and nasty.” And while the damage may be done in cyberspace, the fallout is very real, and it happens at school.

“We’ve had suspensions that started with Facebook. There’ll be an issue between two students, and you come to find out it started on the Internet. A few students have wanted to transfer because they’ve felt so ostracized,” says Thomas Stella, principal of Roy C. Ketcham High in Wappingers Falls. As part of an anti-bullying program, the school district recently hosted speaker John Halligan. In 2003, Halligan’s 13-year-old son Ryan committed suicide after years of ferocious bullying escalated online. “The kids were very moved by his presentation,” Stella says.

But the work to address the cyber-bullying problem — which Gerety says is the biggest challenge adolescents (and their parents) face today — doesn’t stop with the kids. In fact, according to Haber, it starts with the parents. “As technology grows, there are more potential ways for adults and children to be hurtful. And that’s becoming normal behavior. Like adults gossiping — it’s not nice, but it’s a common behavior. Parents need to look at how they role model, how they discuss these things with their kids.” So what’s a parent to do?

Monitor your child’s online activities. “Much of cyber-bullying goes unnoticed by parents,” says Gerety. “It’s harder for them to monitor their children’s activities. They don’t know what their kids are writing to their friends.” Gerety suggests you reserve the right to review Facebook or MySpace profiles. “You want a sense of the flavor of the messages, some sense of surveillance. If you discover Facebook is being used for bullying, terminate the account.” And when it comes to mobile technology, the same applies. “If you’re going to get your kid a cell phone, it needs limits. It’s a privilege, not a right,” says Haber. “If they cross a line, there has to be consequences.”

Network yourself. “Across the board, what you’re seeing in one house, you’re seeing in many houses,” Gerety says. “Parents need to be with each other. It really does take a village.” By networking with the parents of your child’s peers, you create a community that can help you address incidences of bullying with a phone call. In Gerety’s opinion, this is particularly important during middle school.

Teach your children well — and be realistic about their maturity. “Kids are always looking to stretch limits and boundaries,” insists Haber, “but we should only give them more freedom when they can handle it. We don’t give kids access to a car when they’re 12. The Internet allows for the same sort of devastating consequences: harassment charges, predators. The adolescent brain is impulsive, it likes high risk, so it’s most important for parents to be involved, and monitoring them if needed: ‘We trust you, but…’ By 18, they hopefully know the right thing, and are using [social networking and mobile technology] appropriately.”

Ask for help. If you think your child may be being bullied, Gerety suggests getting him or her into a private consultation with a therapist. And don’t be afraid to get the school involved. According to Haber, “It’s critical that schools are part of the solution.” Stella agrees: “I would like to think that when something happens, our students know to say something. There are consequences in a civil society for saying malicious things. I’m a firm believer in getting parents in and sitting them down. Let’s all work together here.”

Resources:

The Therapy Center
Bullyproof Your Child for Life by Dr. Joel Haber
Respect U
Ryan’s Story Presentation, LLC
National Crime Prevention Council

Next class: Review your high school
 
high school students

About the Stats

Now that you’ve got this mountain of statistics, here’s the best way to go about considering the data.

Since studies suggest that wealthier districts often contain schools with higher achieving academic rankings, we’ve listed them in order according to average household income (as determined by the 2000 Census). Changes in today’s economy, however, have proved that money isn’t the only factor determining performance; it’s clear that some less-affluent communities, and others who have had to endure cutbacks, do perform above average, while higher-earning locales sometimes see a decline in test scores.

Most of the data listed was taken from two noteworthy Web sites: www.schoolmatters.com, run by Standard & Poor’s, gives accumulated statistical information about public schools and their communities; and www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/reportcard — the state Department of Education’s Annual Report Card for the 2007-2008 school year, contains information obtained from local school district officials. Other data was received directly from the schools themselves.

Although some districts’ strengths and weaknesses might be reflected by the information listed in this chart, no set of statistics can tell the full story about any school; as such, readers should remain cautious about taking these numbers too literally.

» Click on the image below to download or print our 2010 top high schools chart

Statistics from latest available reports (2007)Click here to review your county's public high schools

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

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