Don’t tell Forest Hills High School Principal Saul Gootnick about trends in education — his staff and 3,900 students seem to disregard them at every opportunity.
Forest Hills this week was given a grade of A by the city’s Department of Education for the fourth straight year. The feat is unmatched for large high schools in the city.
Special education students? Forest Hills has them. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? Nearly 48 percent of their students qualify for free lunch. And as for language barriers, the student population at Forest Hills has 67 distinct native languages spoken at home.
“My first language is Spanish,” said senior Maria Osorio. “I came here seven years ago.”
She is now copresident of the student government.
“The trend is for smaller, more specialized high schools,” Gootnick said. “And we’re a neighborhood high school. If you live in the neighborhood, we don’t reject anybody. When you consider that, this is amazing. You hear about Cardozo, Bayside, Francis Lewis. But they’re not doing this.”
Forest Hills has an 87 percent graduation rate, all while offering Regents, honors and Advance Placement courses.
“Every student who takes a Regents course takes the Regents exam,” Gootnick said. “We offer classes in sign language, Chinese and Latin. We’ve tripled our physics department. Our goal is to make every student here college-ready.”
He said it helps when a school has a sense of community, speaking about a teacher who recently lost his home and possessions to Hurricane Sandy.
“The children helped replace his bike,” Gootnick said. “They replaced his guitars.” And faculty and staff collected donations and headed to his home to help try and pick up the pieces. He said students too suffered losses to Sandy.
“The teachers agreed that we should suspend homework, quizzes and tests for a week,” Gootnick said.
Assistant Principal Ellen Grebstein and Student Activities Coordinator Mary Ciccaroni said the school dipped into its own funds to help replace lost textbooks and school supplies. Other students collected more than $1,200 for hurricane relief efforts.
Senior Daniel Greenberg and Junior Po Efekoro said that a sense of family extends to the students.
“I commute at least 90 minutes each way from Brooklyn and back,” Efekoro said. “But I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in activities and two of the sports teams.”
Greenberg said the faculty and staff are generally supporting, within reason, of student initiatives, whether it be in offering challenging, interesting coursework or forming a new chess club or allowing clubs and organizations to meet during free periods in the school day.
“Helping us manage out time is also a way to help make us ready for college, where we’ll have to do that ourselves,” he said. “If I’m having a conflict between good classes, that’s a good thing.”