Valley Stream’s three high schools are rarely thought of among Long Island’s elite. District administrators would like to know, “Why not?”
Rankings recently released by the Washington Post and Newsweek have put Valley Stream’s high schools among the best in the state and the nation. The Post ranked all three schools in its list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools, while Central, North and South also placed on Newsweek’s America’s Best High School list.
For the Post rankings, 2,053 high schools of more than 22,000 in the United States made the list. South clocked in at 424th in the nation and 35th in the state. North ranked at 532nd nationally and 49th in New York, with Central following at 746th and 64th, respectively.
The Post’s ranking formula was simple. It took the number of Advanced Placement and other college-level tests given at a school in a year divided by the number of graduates. Dr. Thomas Troisi, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said it was an honest ranking with the same standard being applied to every school.
“I like what it’s measuring,” said North High School Principal Cliff Odell. “What it’s saying is we are challenging as many students as possible.”
Newsweek ranked the 2,000 best high schools in the United States. Its criteria included a school’s four-year on-time graduation rate, percent of graduates accepted to college, Advanced Placement and other college-level tests taken per student, and SAT and AP scores. South ranked 440th in the country, Central 734th and North 985th.
Odell said that the district gives students numerous opportunities to take college level classes. There are a total of 21 Advanced Placement courses offered. Some students have taken as many as 15 AP classes during their high school careers in Valley Stream.
Troisi said students are encouraged to take these challenging courses whenever possible and a liberal policy supports that. He explained that while some districts have minimum requirements for students to be able to take an AP course, Valley Stream doesn’t. “That has always been the philosophy,” he said. “If a kid wants to challenge himself or herself, we let them.”
A student can take an AP course as early as 10th grade with world history. There are numerous offerings in social studies, math and science, with college-level classes available in English, math and music, as well. Troisi said that nearly decade ago, a decision was made to establish AP classes as the honors-level course for a subject. He said the Advanced Placement designation is widely-recognized and the rigor of courses is consistent from district to district.
Honors-level courses at the junior high level have been made more challenging, Troisi explained, to prepare students for the AP classes they will take in high school.
About one-third of students at each of the three schools take AP courses. Not only are many students taking the tests, but they are doing well. This year, the district honored 274 Advanced Placement Scholars, which means they scored at least a 3 out of 5 on a minimum of three tests. “That number over the past decade has more than doubled,” Superintendent Dr. Bill Heidenreich said.
The district ensures that students can take these tests. The cost for one exam is $86, which is typically paid by the students. But if cost is factor, the district does have federal funds available to make sure every child can take every test they desire. “We can’t let economics be a barrier,” Heidenreich said. “You could have kids taking four or five of these exams and it gets expensive.”
Central High School Principal Dr. Joseph Pompilio said department leaders talk to prospective AP students about the expectations and demands of these courses. Parents and guidance counselors also play a big role in deciding in an AP class is right for a student.
Part of what makes an AP course successful is having the right teacher, the administrators explained. When teaching an AP course for the first time, educators are sent to a workshop the summer before. They also must send a syllabus to the College Board, which administers the AP tests, for approval.
Pompilio said it is important to have a teacher that is not only knowledgeable about the subject, but relates positively with their students. The high expectations require a classroom culture of support and encouragement, he explained.
The feedback from graduates about the district’s AP program has been very positive, Pompilio said, noting that several students have returned boasting of how their high school education prepared them for college. Odell added that many students have entered college with sophomore standing because of the credits they earned from taking AP exams.
One more point that the administrators said is impressive is that AP students in the northeast have one less month to prepare for their tests than other areas of the country. The tests are given in May, which is the end of the school year for regions where classes start in August.
“You really have to hit the ground running in September,” Odell said, “because the pace of the curriculum moves very, very fast and it’s a very challenging curriculum.”
The new Common Core Learning Standards, which have been implemented nationally, focus on college and career readiness. In the age of diminishing financial resources for schools, non-mandated programs like AP courses could be on the chopping block despite the purpose they serve. Heidenreich said that these high-level courses are, and will remain a priority in the Valley Stream Central High School District.