Science Education for Young Learners

Columbia Secondary School Graduates Into High School

by Record Staff

Seventh grader Christabel Barbosa says she didn’t know much about engineering before she started at the Columbia Secondary School for Science, Math and Engineering. In the year that she’s been at the still-new public school, “I learned you have to take multiple steps before you start building things,” she said. “You have to understand what you are building, and you have to take things apart before you put them together.”

Students, parents and staff discuss the unique learning opportunities available at Columbia Secondary School. (5:58)

Much the same can be said for this novel New York City public school, which opened its doors in September 2007 with a single sixth-grade class and has added a grade per year. Come next fall, as its oldest students advance, Columbia Secondary will, as planned, become a high school open to high-performing students from the five boroughs.

From the very first open-house held for prospective sixth graders on Columbia’s campus three years ago, students and their families have been clamoring to get in. The school offers its students a demanding academic program that includes seven years of engineering, seven years of philosophy and a wide variety of elective, fitness and creative arts courses. This year more than 500 students attended an open house for ninth graders and more than 2,000 students applied for the available slots.

“Part of the reason why there has been so much interest in our school is because it is accelerated and organized to tend to the needs of highly talented students, and it has been successful in attracting a very diverse student population,” said Principal José Maldonado-Rivera.

Columbia’s involvement also plays a role. The University helped establish the school, in a partnership announced with the city Department of Education in late 2005, to improve education in science, math and engineering, particularly in upper Manhattan. The school “responds to a great national need,” Lee C. Bollinger said when it was announced in 2005. It is located within the Ralph Bunche School, P.S. 125, at 123rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Faculty and graduate students from Columbia, particularly from the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Arts and Sciences, and Teachers College help teach some classes. The middle school grades give priority to high-performing local students from northern Manhattan, above 96th Street. The high school’s enrollment will be composed of both local students from the middle school and students from the rest of the city.

“The student body is 55 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African American, and 20 percent Caucasian or Asian,” says Maldonado-Rivera. “These kids have historically not had many options.”

In the latest Department of Education progress report on the city’s public schools, Columbia Secondary scored 96.4 percent in categories measuring student progress, the environment and overall student performance for the academic year 2008-2009, placing it in the 95th percentile of all middle schools citywide. It has also won four Blackboard Awards—given annually by Manhattan Media to honor local educators—two for best math teachers, one for new and noteworthy middle school and one for best principal.

That principal, Maldonado-Rivera, is a Teachers College Ph.D. and an adjunct professor who credits the school’s success to its wide-ranging curriculum, a strong faculty bolstered by Columbia’s engagement and to its determined students and their families. Before returning to New York to develop and lead the Columbia-assisted public school, Maldonado spent two years as assistant principal of the Dorado School, a private academy in his native Puerto Rico. Before that, he was chair of the education department at Hartwick College.

In addition to the strong basic science and math curriculum, electives range from bioethics and neuroscience to ragtime music and Latin dance. During the school’s June mini-semester, students enroll in interdisciplinary fieldbased courses clustered around three themes: In the City; Sustainability; and Study Abroad. For example, sixth graders may take field expeditions to Puerto Rico, where they learn about biodiversity, or a course on architecture in the city.

Noah Sclar, a sixth grader, says math is his favorite subject, but he likes the hands-on experiments in engineering classes—particularly one in which students test their design skills as they wrap raw eggs to survive a drop from the school’s rooftop to the concrete schoolyard below. “We have to learn what terminal velocity is when the egg is falling at a certain speed through acceleration,” he said. “We have to figure out how much padding to put on it so it doesn’t break.”

The secondary school’s first three years have not been without challenges, mainly financial, which is not unusual for small start-up public schools. To work within its tight budget, school parents act as administrative assistants or teach classes. Maldonado-Rivera himself teaches courses in marine biology and philosophy. This year, like many high performing public schools, Columbia Secondary is running an internal campaign to raise funds among families who can afford to contribute given the economic diversity of the student population. It also has an “Adopt a Future Scientist” campaign and is looking for individuals or institutional donors to support the school’s enrichment programs.

Parent Victor Acosta, co-president of the CSS Parents Association, said he was sold on the school when he heard Maldonado-Rivera give a presentation at his daughter’s elementary school several years ago. Although his daughter, Eva Luna, initially wanted to go to the same school where her friends were headed, even she was convinced to attend Columbia Secondary.

“She doesn’t know this, but I know that whatever she’s learning now is a stepping stone for the future,” Acosta said. “I wish I could trade places with her,” he added with a laugh. “I could be here at school and she could be working.”

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