New And Noteworthy Public Middle School
In just a year of existence, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering has changed the landscape of middle schools in northern Manhattan, and created buzz throughout the city and beyond. That’s the advantage of having the heft of an Ivy League school behind you, and a mission that, if successful, could be a model for schools across the country.
Principal Dr. José Maldonado, a biologist and longtime educator, said that the idea for the school grew out of informal meetings between the Department of Education and Columbia, as a way for Columbia to contribute to the community and for the department to foster innovation and excellence.
Like Hunter College High School, the other major department/college collaboration, Columbia Secondary School administers its own essay admissions tests, which winnow down top scorers from the state English Language Arts and math tests.
Unlike Hunter College Schools, Columbia Secondary School has a unique multi-district catchment zone encompassing four districts north of 96th street. This emphasizes the school’s commitment to the neighborhood that surrounds it, and particularly to underserved minority students, whose numbers are slipping in the city’s other specialized schools.
“It’s one of the most diverse specialized schools in the city,” Maldonado said. “If we can continue to be successful, it will be of national interest.”
Last year, the school opened with 6th grade. Each year, it will accept more 6th graders as the older classes advance a grade, so the school will be at full capacity when this current crop of 7th graders reach their senior year. By that time, the staff hopes the school will have moved out of its current location, nested on the top floors of a public elementary school on West 123rd Street, to a brand new building on the corner of Broadway and West 125th Street
One of the major advantages those future upperclassmen will have comes from school’s partnership with Columbia. The advanced students, instead of taking AP classes or honors classes, will be able to take real college courses at Columbia—for credit, and for free.
The school’s curriculum, like most of the city’s specialized schools, emphasizes math and science. Columbia Secondary School also opted to enlist students and staff from Columbia Teachers College to help write the curriculum.
The focus on math and science is largely due to the growing American deficit in those subjects, a problem that has captured the attention of Bill Gates, among others. By making the sciences fun and relevant at an early age, Maldonado said, “We can catch them at the right moment, when kids are making decisions, and get them motivated and excited.”
In addition to a science requirement every year, the students take scientific electives, philosophy and engineering, as well as an interdisciplinary mini-course in June.
It’s a rigorous curriculum, but one that is hands-on and fun at the same time. Students this year built chairs out of cardboard using no tape, and tested their final products on teachers, who had to sit down on them. Students have also created containers to cushion eggs tossed from the top floor, and designed models for their school’s future greenhouse.
Classes are divided between regular public sizes and smaller groups, so that students learn to achieve in both kinds of environments. Public speaking, writing and participation are stressed throughout every single subject.
“People have walked in, and are shocked that this isn’t 11th or 12th graders, based on the level at which the kids are discussing issues,” Maldonado said.
The mini-semester at the end of the year serves as a chance for all students to go on educational trips and experience interdisciplinary learning. This year, one of the groups even went to Puerto Rico. Maldonado hopes that in the future, the school will run trips to all seven continents.
Beyond the high goals for academic achievement, though, there is an incredibly strong sense of community at Columbia Secondary School, apparent from the moment one walks into the main office and sees all the smiles and enthusiasm.
“We embrace strength in diversity,” Maldonado said. “We embrace challenges. We have a strong school spirit and created a very strong environment. The kids love to be here, and the faculty are committed to being equalizers. There’s a sense of special mission.”
Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering
425 W. 123rd St.
New York, N.Y. 10027
Dr. José Maldonado, Principal
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