Outstanding Public High School
The nomenclature of Hunter College High School is no mistake. In many respects, the school more closely resembles college than a high school. Hunter employs Ph.D. faculty, offers electives in astrophysics and has an open campus, allowing students in grades 7-12 to leave the building during their free periods.
“Teaching them how to work with the freedom that we give them is part of their education,” said Dr. Eileen Coppola, the newly minted principal at Hunter, who in August moved to New York from Houston to take the job.
But Hunter is still a high school, and as a publicly funded institution administered by Hunter College of the City University of New York, it is free. Hunter receives upwards of 1,500 applications for each 200-seat class, making the school one of the city’s most selective. Individual classes are capped at 25 students.
“The idea that a school of this quality is free and available to all the students in the City of New York is really important to me,” Coppola said. “It’s stunning that the students have access to this level of faculty. It’s almost equivalent to a strong university environment.”
The faculty includes numerous Ph.D. holders, several published authors, accomplished composers and award-winners across disciplines.
“I knew they had Ph.D. teachers who chose to teach here, and that interests me,” said Ahna Bogyo, a member of the PTA whose son is in 10th grade. “Why would somebody who has a doctorate in their subject choose to teach in a high school? And it’s not just one or two [Ph.D.s]—Hunter has a whole lot of them.”
Tony Fisher, assistant principal for grades 7-9, has a Ph.D. in math. In addition to his administrative duties, Fisher advises an independent study in abstract algebra—upper-college level material—and is constantly amazed by his students.
“It’s exciting that on top of the regular curriculum, they’re eager to do more,” Fisher said. “Yes, it is a competitive prep school, but they’re interested in the material for its own sake and they’re excited about it. The students are able to follow their passions and the things that come out of the independent studies are quite stunning.”
“We’re teaching at a higher level than a lot of college classes because the kids are able to be there with you,” added Kip Zegers, a teacher in the Communications and Theater Department who is in his 25th year at Hunter.
By the time students reach their senior year, most have completed their required courses and are free to design their own schedules. In addition to the independent study option, students choose from electives ranging from readings in philosophy and constitutional law to art history, Joyce’s Ulysses, and astrophysics and cosmology.
Advanced academic endeavors are matched by the school’s extra-curricular offerings, as Hunter students participate in more than 80 after-school clubs. Some, like the math club and debate team, are related to the curriculum, while others step far outside the academic realm.
“Some groups become special feeder groups from the classes, and then there is the Dance Dance Revolution club,” said Lisa Siegmann, assistant principal for grades 10-12. “The school is really responsive to both of the needs for this age group. For some things, they need adult connections and academic ways to explore. Sometimes they just need a place to play, and we’re lucky we’re able to provide that.”
“If you’ve got the most unusual interest, they’ll make room for you,” Bogyo said. “That’s what makes Hunter exceptional.”
With so many organizations to run, it largely falls on the students to come up with their own extra-curricular direction.
“Student leaders are a really big part of Hunter,” said senior Joe Kim, president of Hunter’s student government, the General Organization (GO). “The faculty and administration really allow a lot of freedom in the student leaders.”
The student government plans several day-long events each year, including a school-wide trip to Bear Mountain, which features a teacher-refereed junior-senior football game, and a year-end carnival at which each of the school’s 80-plus clubs hosts a booth.
Hunter students travel from all five boroughs on their daily commute, and for students like Park, who must attend 7:30 a.m. student government meetings twice weekly, that means waking up at 5:30 a.m. to hop a train, a bus or subway, and sometimes all three, en route to East 94th Street. Unlike most of the city’s high schools, Hunter begins in 7th grade, not 9th, so students make that commute from an even younger age.
“Starting in 7th grade changes completely the dynamic of the school,” Kim said. “There’s a lot more patience with the students and a huge amount of respect. It’s an open-campus school, and even the 7th graders can leave campus on their free periods. They trust the students a lot.”
“That 7th grade year provides time where we can build a sense of community without it being part of the high school panic,” assistant principal Siegmann added.
Even in allowing for that independence, Hunter makes sure that students and parents have the guidance and support they need to thrive for six years in such a challenging environment. Hunter has a team of six counselors charged with leading the students through the increasingly complicated college application process.
Last summer, one of those counselors, Dr. Chris Rogutsky, traveled to some of the lesser-known, quality colleges across the country. She kept a blog of her trip so that students, and especially their immigrant parents, could get a taste of the wide variety of college options.
“We have a very large immigrant population in the parent body, and a lot of parents may not be familiar with schools beyond the most selective,” Rogustky said. “I try to create opportunities for them to learn more.”
Within Hunter’s walls, students can easily be overwhelmed by opportunity. So at the urging of the student government, Hunter has put measures in place to prevent that over-extension, offering stress management resources and limiting the number of electives students can take.
“There are a lot of people that spend a lot of time here thinking about the whole child, making sure that our kids are humane and that this is an atmosphere that doesn’t get crazy,” assistant principal Fisher said.
College may not be far off, but for all the opportunities it offers, Hunter makes sure students stay grounded in high school.
Hunter College High School
71 E. 94th St.
New York, NY 10128
Dr. Eileen Coppola, Principal
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