First Class Graduates From Columbia-Affiliated Public Secondary School

July 02, 2014

Rosalia Polanco, who plans to attend Davidson College in North Carolina in the fall, expects to become the first college graduate in her family. Her classmate Jonathan Montalvo, winner of a prestigious scholarship, will study physics and English at Middlebury College. Their fellow student Christian McArthur has chosen Harvard from a list of acceptances that included MIT, Columbia and Princeton.

All three are members of the first graduating class at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a New York City public school affiliated with the University and modeled after academic powerhouses such as Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. Graduation is set for June 24 and three members of the graduating class will attend Columbia in the fall.

“I am so proud of this school we set up with the city,” says Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. “We are now embarked on an adventure with these young people that will be a source of pride for the University for generations to come.”

Columbia Secondary, located on West 123rd Street between Morningside and Amsterdam avenues, opened in the fall of 2007 as part of a partnership among the New York City Department of Education, the community and the University to create a selective secondary school that would provide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to students from Upper Manhattan and neighborhoods across the city.

“In the sixth grade students haven’t quite decided who they are yet,” says Principal Miriam Nightengale. “We get students who are sort of interested in science, but they don’t really know what that means yet. Then we have seven years to develop that.”

The school curriculum has a number of unusual features, including a philosophy program and the June J-term, when students leave the classroom for a month-long field project to study one subject in depth, such as agriculture or architecture. Students have visited the Ozarks, Florida’s Everglades and Puerto Rico. Advanced students can take classes at Columbia, an experience that senior Chelsea Rodriguez describes as “surreal.” There they are treated like University students, expected to carry the same workload and meet the same requirements. “I didn’t ever feel like I wasn’t a part of the class,” she says. “Nobody really noticed that we were high school students.”

The Class of 2014 faced challenges both at home and at school, among them the pressure of being the first to graduate from a school founded as an educational experiment. “They had no road map,” says CSS guidance counselor Kristen Harris. “They were building the bridge as they were walking across it.” Now, with the school’s 100 percent college acceptance rate, the seniors are feeling proud of both their institution and their accomplishments. “I love the school because of the way that I’ve been able to build it up,” says McArthur, who was student body president. “I’ve visited other schools to see how they do some things, and then I try implementing the things I like about those into our school.”

Students are grateful for the support they have received from the faculty. “When I needed help with my academics, there was always a teacher willing to help me or stay after school,” says Fatima Jallow, the daughter of West African immigrants, who will study biology next fall at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

As a caregiver for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Montalvo faced an especially taxing situation at home. “Dealing with [my father’s illness] while going through these difficult classes was tough, but I used it as inspiration to further my studies because my dad didn’t get to study the things that he wanted to do,” he says.

Polanco, who grew up in a single-parent home and is the daughter of Dominican immigrants, points to the classes she took at Columbia as a life-changing experience. “I didn’t think I was actually going to be able to do it,” she says. “Even though it was a lot of hard work and a lot of effort, it showed me that I can do whatever I set my mind to.” Come the fall, she will room with Kiambra Griffin, who will replace her daily commute across Upper Manhattan from East Harlem with a far longer journey to the outskirts of Charlotte, N.C., where Davidson is located.

The extraordinary distance these students have traveled does not surprise Harris. “They’re all very driven, each in their own way,” she says. “The expectation is to succeed, and that is not coming from us, that’s coming from them.”

—by Ted Rabinowitz