Making the Grade: Examining the Valley’s High Schools

The economic downturn has forced educators throughout the region to do more with less. Here’s a look at how four local schools are helping their students succeed with innovative programs and special services. Want to know how your child’s school measures up? Check our chart, which lists stats for 65 Valley high schools



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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
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