Behind the Scenes at 3 Outstanding Hudson Valley High Schools

Advisors (center, from left) Jen Maloney and Amy Matts guide Spackenkill High School students through a hands-on experiment.

Behind the scenes at three outstanding Hudson Valley high schools.

By Mike Diago

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Spackenkill High School photos by Mike Polito

Kingston High School and Haldane High School photos by Kenneth Gabrielsen


Art teacher Roberto Romani and senior Kerri Ravas


Spackenkill High School

It comes as no surprise that Spackenkill High School is known for excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The school was born out of the high expectations of suburban Poughkeepsie parents — many of whom worked nearby at IBM. Since joining the Science Olympiad in 1998, the school has ranked in the top three in the state four times. District superintendent Mark Villanti wants us to know that while those touchstones of the school’s culture have remained intact, another strong cultural thread is inclusivity.

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Villanti explains, “It is a misnomer that we are a school for IBM kids, although that may have been true at one time. In the last 10 years, utilization of our free and reduced-price lunch program has increased almost 25 percent and currently one in every three kids is a minority.”

Spackenkill High School Principal Steven Malkischer adds, “Disadvantaged kids [at Spackenkill] perform better than 90 percent of kids in their same income bracket statewide.” One of Malkisher’s points of pride is in how well the school accepts transfer students from schools with a tougher reputation. He shares, “Very quickly, the culture in the school helps kids lose the chip on their shoulder.”

(From left) Corrado Mazzarelli, Alex Ristic, Kyiev Bennermon

One transfer student named Kyiev Bennermon, who was a senior at the time of this interview, agrees that the school has a great support system, contrasting it with dynamics at his previous school: “In my old school you had to keep your head on a swivel because someone might be trying to come at you, but here it is all positive vibes. I’ve come a long way since my first year, when I used to be in detention all the time.” Malkischer nods in agreement. Bennermon is now attending Boston College on a football scholarship.

One of the keys to success may be that there are several ports of entry into the teen social scene. Most kids are members of at least two clubs. The Leadership Experience and Opportunity (LEO) club is the largest, comprising approximately 150 kids. They organize events like “no name-calling week” and “random acts of kindness.” Other clubs cater to more specific interests, but the boundaries are especially fluid. Corrado Mazzarelli — a senior last year and a frequent lead actor in the Drama club — says the separation between cliques that was prevalent in the days of Grease’s Danny Zuko, one of Mazzarelli’s character roles, is largely confined to on-stage fiction at Spackenkill. He explains, “After my performance in Les Miserables, all the guys on the soccer team came up and gave me big hugs.”

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Students are comfortable exploring their identity here and avoiding early typecasting. Even when they shine brilliantly in a specific area, they are encouraged to keep pushing into new territory. Mazzarelli, for example, pours hours of energy into his acting, but when asked what he wants to do for work, he responds: “I’m 95 percent sure I’m going to RPI for aerospace engineering.” Another student, Kerri Ravas, recently won two gold medals in a national scholastic arts competition for charcoal work she is now showing at Carnegie Hall and other locations; when asked what her career goals are, she answers: “I really like Spanish, science, and criminology, so I think I’ll do something with one of those.”

Advisor Adam Hammond with students (from left) Elaina Gemmati, Caitlin Speranza and Isabel Hammond

Arts, athletics, and academic programs all carry punishing schedules and challenging subject matter, making the smiles on the kids’ faces that much more remarkable as they carry on these scholastic juggling acts. In the school’s science research program, teenagers seek out mentorship from professors at schools like Yale, MIT, and local options like Vassar. They work full-time during the summer on research projects that, at times, result in national awards and published scientific journal articles.

Alex Ristic, an athletic teen dressed in sweats, activated all of the brainwaves in the room when describing his project during senior year this past spring: “I work at a molecular biology lab at Yale that uses CRISPR, which is basically this gene-editing system, to investigate tumor suppressor genes in mice liver cells. We cause mutations to determine which of a handful of tumor suppressor genes were responsible for interacting with the tumor micro-environment and allowing tumors to grow in immuno-competent mice, solidifying which are prevalent or critical in cancer development.” Another program participant, Mia Eng-Kohn, who was a junior at the time, explains her project: “We’re trying to use spinach leaves to develop a scaffolding system for tissue structure. Our summer goal is to take cellulose out and replace it with human tissue in order to have the spinach leaf act as a vascular structure.” In Mia’s free time — when she isn’t conducting medical research — she is running a website for the theater club and helping to design sets and work lighting.

Spackenkill’s status as a Reward School — awarded by the New York State Education Department to schools with “high academic achievement or those with the most progress in the State and do not have significant gaps in student achievement between subgroups” — is proof of the school’s success.

Accolades are great, but for Kalkischer, his driving motivation “is really just the kids.”


(From left) Teachers Eric Richter and Ashley Linda with student Julie Geller


Haldane High School

Haldane High School is perched among the Hudson Highlands in Cold Spring, on an enviable plot of land that provides miles of river views in both directions. Driving up the steep and winding entry road onto the campus, shared by all of the district’s schools, there is a sense that you are entering some privileged families’ private estate; in fact, the campus grounds were once home to former US Army Major General Paul Butterfield, who, for a time, worked just across the river at West Point. It is the most private-feeling public school in our region.

Principal Julia Sniffen is dedicated to preserving a homelike feeling for students at Haldane High School.

Principal Julia Sniffen works hard to preserve the homelike feel amidst today’s heightened security needs. Her demeanor balances the tension of all of that responsibility with equal measures of caring and vigilance. As she sits behind her office desk, juggling a phone call from the board president and a meeting with a student to check out his art project, her eyes dart to the road below, fixing on a passing ambulance; she checks the time under her breath to see if any of her kids may be off-grounds on lunch hour. Haldane is still an “open campus,” where older kids can come and go into the nearby village during free periods and lunchtime. The students feel pleasantly safe, with younger middle and elementary class groups crossing paths and interacting between classes.

Maintaining this fearless and open environment for the students is worth the additional stress to Sniffen, because it carries over into their attitudes toward learning and communicating. While Haldane is proud of its academic achievement — it is a National Blue Ribbon School and a NYS Reward School, 78 percent of kids are enrolled in AP classes, and the average student graduates with 10 college credits — it is most proud of less-measurable outcomes, like the way kids are taught to think.

Haldane’s Discover, Create, and Innovate teacher Simon Dudar (center) with students (from left) Noah Bingham and Luke Hammond

A culture of engagement in critical reasoning and discourse is evident in the hallways, special group settings, and classrooms. The school’s strategic plan through 2020 provides guiding statements in its “vision elements” section, like creating learners “who are reflective and passionate thinkers” and “have a curious and entrepreneurial spirit.” Sniffen explains that creating this type of learner involves encouraging teachers to ask what she calls “deeper thinking” questions. “We really need to ensure that they are analyzing, thinking, and using higher order skills rather than just regurgitating information [via smartphones].”

On a recent afternoon, global studies teacher Michelle Cordero asked students to pick a leader from the Muslim Golden Age, find his or her greatest achievement, and discuss its impact on our lives today. The assignment leads students to deeply engage with common stereotyped roles of Muslims in our world. During the same hour, AP Physics II teacher Kieran Lynch presides over a room of intensely focused students, two of whom are National Merit Scholars. He draws a diagram on an electronic white board and asks students to explain some Hawking-level physics phenomena and then to “prove it”— which they do. The school also holds regular “Socratic method groups” — students sit in a circle, are given a broad issue to discuss, and explore the topic together using the namesake philosopher’s ultra-objective style of inquiry.

Haldane places an emphasis on individualized, strength-based education and project-based learning. In Haldane’s Discover, Create, and Innovate class, teacher Simon Dudar facilitates student-led projects in a large creative laboratory strewn with projects ranging from a working hovercraft and an electricity-generating bicycle to a retro arcade game. Students devise projects they are excited about and then split up tasks according to passion areas. Dudar says, “Kids start the class with 100’s so they can forget about the grade and focus on doing what they want.”

Students Everett Campanile and Owen McGinley working on a class project

Tammy Michael, a tech strategist with the company Intersection in New York — recently purchased by Google — and a frequent in-class presence, largely influences the methodologies used in class. Michael says, “I teach kids about AGILE and SCROM (tech development and programming methodologies) and taking new perspectives on figuring out what is a problem, how to gather data, evaluate it, and come up with solutions.” The class designed their work style after her company following a visit to the NYC office.

The energy and ideas flowing through the school make it easy to overlook any problem areas. Haldane’s only low marks are in the area of racial diversity. Sniffen tells us, “We do try to work [diversity] into our literature and reading materials and we have created a partnership with urban schools, but I think we can always do more in this area.” Students recognize this and are trying to ensure that they have some exposure. In a group meeting of “Women Empowered,” student leaders Mae McGrath, a senior, and Freya Wood-Gallagher, a junior, addressed some agenda items and then moved into the day’s activity: a documentary screening that discussed the deaths of young black men in police encounters, featuring interviews with black men who shared their experiences of being racially profiled or improperly treated because of implicit bias. Group members were eager to understand.

Short of actually being in a diverse environment, the critical thinking and openness they acquire through their education is good preparation for the non-judgmental attitude they will need as they encounter more diverse environments in adulthood. More broadly, the type of learning style adopted by these post-millenials sets them up to make creative and professional progress at a speed that should have the rest of us squirreling away money and polishing our resumes.


(Front, from left) Band Directors Stephen Garner and Jeffrey Giebelhaus with students from the school’s marching band. 


Kingston High School

Kingston High School is an old, small-city school whose history, longevity, and resolve are easily perceived in the students, the staff, and the architecture itself. Kingston-based architect Arthur Curtis Longyear designed the neo-classical high school building after the Louvre in Paris, implementing grand features that would ensure that all students, since the first graduating class of 1916, would enter up the stone steps each morning with a sense of confidence and importance. The weight and strength of the building and the people inside provide reassurance that the school is much older and stronger than some of the hard times Kingston has been through, and that it will be around long after they have passed.

Kingston High School Principal Kirk P. Reinhardt is the man currently at the helm. He is a military veteran with a clean-shaven head, buttoned-up look, and a vice-grip handshake.  As the leader of a large, complex school, he moves and talks efficiently, communicates expectations to students and teachers clearly — and defends the reputation of his school fiercely. At the first mention of Kingston High’s involvement in an article that includes other schools, he taps the table anxiously, leans his head back and challenges (half-jokingly), “What makes them better than us?” Reinhardt admits that “it is very frustrating” to hear people’s impressions of a large urban school as less-than. It is true that Kingston High School deals with hard challenges. In the past five years they have seen their number of qualifiers for the free and reduced-price lunch program rise to its highest-ever rate of 63 percent, according to superintendent Dr. Paul Padalino; it is a dismal indicator of growing poverty in the district.

(From left) Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul J. Padalino and Principal Kirk Reinhardt

Kingston has met these challenges head-on. During the same year (2017) that the free and reduced-price lunch program saw its peak in usage, one-third of the seniors involved in the program graduated with college credits, and the school had its highest overall graduation rate on record at 83.5 percent, according to Padalino. They have made drastic improvement among historically low African-American graduation rates, bringing numbers from 54 percent to 71 percent in the last six years; the graduation rate of students with disabilities went from the high 40s to the mid 60s in percentage points.

Padalino says, “What we did was set the vision: students graduate. When people start talking about the challenges of a certain group, the expectations stay the same. We can’t take excuses. The assistant principals are responsible for a cohort and they report on their graduation rates to Reinhardt. It comes down to knowing their kids and figuring out how to allocate their resources properly to meet their needs.” Reinhardt agrees and encourages any efforts that take into account the circumstances of students. Reinhardt explains, “They may not have computers or printers at home, so teachers print out newspaper articles and provide resources for them.” According to Padalino, one of the most important years to focus on is 9th grade. “Freshman year is an adjustment year, and kids who fall behind get discouraged.” Since 2012, the 9th grade dropout rate has fallen from 20 percent to 5 percent.

Director of Physical Education, Health & Athletics Rich Silverstein

Angela Armstrong, assistant principal of the 9th grade academy, is up to the task of meeting these expectations, and has focused attention on males of color. Brothers at Bard, a networking, tutoring, and character-building program started by Bard College student Dariel Vasquez, is a centerpiece of this effort. The program was started at Bard to help male college students of color acclimate to new surroundings, but it grew to use former college program participants as mentors at Kingston High. “Our graduation rate for males of color was lower than we would like,” Armstrong said. “We have males that don’t have the role models at home, and I saw this as an opportunity for them to make positive connections.” Participants have met with peers at a retreat in the Poconos, and attended adventure-based groups at Frost Valley YMCA and a civil engagement conference in Washington, DC. Armstrong explains, “Some of these kids had never left Kingston.” The program was awarded a grant through the Obama-era “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which allowed Vasquez to become a paid program director after years of volunteering.

At a school like Kingston where, as Padalino puts it, “you have kids coming from farming communities next to kids who have to walk past drugs and guns in their neighborhood on the way to school,” the school needs ways to make everyone feel at home in order to be successful. According to Padalino, “they come together around interest areas.” Varsity basketball standout Brian Moore echoes these sentiments: “All the people here are friendly and care about each other. Principal Reinhardt creates a lot of programs that make people come together.”

Moore is the student-coach of the Unified Basketball Team, which pairs special-needs kids with mainstream education kids. Other programs also have an eye towards creating unity. The school’s marching band is the largest in the state, partly because they want to make sure everyone who wants a spot can get in. Even with 200 instruments to manage, they frequently place in the top three at state competitions. According to band director Steve Garner, “Last time, they didn’t have enough medals to pass out to all of us.”

Art teacher Lara Giordano guides students to explore their creative side on a large mural collage.

Art teacher Lara Giordano gives students equal voice on a large mural collage in the art wing, following in the footsteps of legendary muralist Anton Refregier, who created the final project of his career in conjunction with Kingston High School students in 1978. It is still on display above the main entrance to the school.

While historic monuments like Refregier’s mural and Longyear’s original 1915 building remain in place, maintaining the school’s legacy, Kingston High School continues to look toward the future. Currently the school is adding  $137 million worth of state-of-the-art facilities and buildings, providing an additional logistical and spiritual boost. Developments like these help the school’s leaders and students continue to carry themselves with a resilience that should serve as an example of hope for districts struggling with poverty across the region.

Related: These Are the Top 3 Public School Districts in Each Hudson Valley County

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