Forest Hills High School earned its fifth straight “A” rating this fall from the New York City Department of Education, an achievement that administrators, students and staff attribute to an effort to directly support what goes on in the classroom.
“When the teachers teach, they bring their hearts to the boards,” said 12th-grader Silvio CiFuentes, a student in the school’s selective Carl Sagan Science/Math Honors Academy.
“It all begins and ends in the classroom,” said Principal Saul Gootnick, reciting the school’s motto.
The motto is not a reflection of a new way of thinking, Gootnick said, but rather a focus on what has always been the key to a good education.
“We’re an old-fashioned academic high school,” he said. “People talk about Common Core. We were doing Common Core before there was a name for it. It’s good instruction.”
Gootnick and his staff attribute the multiple As to a plan that began five years ago, when the school received a B, to focus on academics and attendance. Outside funds were solicited and received to renovate the library, the athletic fields and to purchase Smart Boards.
Gootnick, who was previously the school’s assistant principal for social studies and before that a social studies teacher, began requiring all students to take the New York State Regents exam for any class that has a Regents available. Many schools offer “non-Regents” versions of classes. “I expected push-back from the parents,” he said, but there was none. He assigned assistant principals to focus on instruction in math, science, English, music, foreign languages and social studies.
And to make sure students get to class, the school added carrot-and-stick incentives to its attendance program. Attendance is one of the behaviors evaluated for students who want to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, according to Mary Ciccaroni, coordinator of student activities and a classroom teacher.
Those with perfect attendance have their names periodically posted and receive T-shirts that read, “I may not be perfect, but my attendance is.”
City rules require a 65 average to participate in sports, but Forest Hills requires a 75.
Writing is now emphasized, partly as the result of feedback from alums who have said, “Mr. Gootnick, you didn’t make us write enough.”
Twelfth-grader Po Efekoro, a student in the high school’s Law & Humanities Institute who commutes “an hour or so” from Brooklyn, is one who navigates the twin demands of academics and extracurriculars. Efekoro is involved in both athletics and the school’s Moot Court Mock Trial activity. “The academics are tremendous. I’ve had a great opportunity to meet a lot of fun and interesting teachers.”
Gootnick also made a conscious decision, as school building budgets were being cut in recent years, to forego staff cuts and instead admit more students, receive additional per-student funding and find ways to deal with the overcrowding. The building was created for 2,300 students but enrollment is at 3,800.
The extra money has enabled him to hire additional teachers in certain subject areas, particularly in foreign languages.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of foreign language,” Gootnick said. About 98 percent of Forest Hills students take three years of foreign language instruction, compared with the requirement of one year for the Regents diploma.
Gootnick wanted all students to benefit from learning a second language, and found out that students with learning disabilities have a strong capacity to learn American Sign Language. He hired an ASL teacher, and now all of the school’s learning-disabled students take ASL as their foreign language and roughly 95 percent pass the Regents in ASL, he said.
“They can be part of the academic dream,” he said, possibly work as interpreters, and even participate more fully in the life of the school. At the school’s holiday show this week, “While the chorus sings, Miss (Dawn) Berisi will have the sign language kids signing the song” as part of the performance, he said.
Several students said that the teachers and administration are very good at managing the school’s overcrowding. The school runs on a split shift, with eleventh and twelfth graders arriving at 7:20 a.m. and ninth and 10th graders arriving at 10:30 a.m. This enables older students to leave early for work-study or work and protects younger students from a possibly long, unsupervised afternoon.
“They sort of Feng Shui the school for the day,” said tenth grader Christian Kelley, a participant in the Music Academy.
“Some of the teachers, they have a lot of group projects,” CiFuentes said. Currently, his English class is reading “Paradise Lost,” he said, and the class breaks up into smaller groups to discuss the work, which helps with organization and helps students to get acquainted.
The split shift makes afterschool activities difficult. “To accommodate especially the younger students, who are more enthusiastic, it’s difficult because most of them are in class when the activities (would otherwise) meet,” Ciccaroni said. To get around that, most clubs meet meetings during lunch periods.
The vast majority of classes that are over the size limit are Advanced Placement or Honors classes, Gootnick said, because he finds it difficult to exclude highly-motivated students from their chosen class.
“We’re also very upfront about it,” said Assistant Principal for Pupil Personnel Services Ellen Grebstein. The school makes it clear at open house events that the building is overcrowded so that no one is surprised.
About 40 percent of Forest Hills’ 3,800 students are zoned to attend and the other 60 percent have elected to attend Forest Hills High School. About 370 are in three partially-selective Academic Opportunities programs: the Sagan Academy, a Drama Academy and the Law and Humanities Institute. About 16 percent of Academic Opportunities students are chosen from students who perform above grade-level, 16 percent from below grade-level, and the rest are at grade-level.
“They offered opportunities that were not available anywhere else,” said twelfth grader Emmilee Millhouse, a student in the Drama Academy, Student Government President and a volleyball athlete.
The school also fills about 1,100 AP seats in 17 different subjects, with some students taking more than one AP class.
Forest Hills also offers a wide variety of work study options for seniors, such as working in child care or at law firms, nursing homes or the offices of public officials, the assistant principal said. It also runs a College Now program, which provides students with the chance to earn up to 20 college credits, either on-site or off-campus, that can be transferred after graduation.
“The goal is not a high school diploma, the goal is: ready for college and life,” Grebstein said.
Klaudia Cyran, a junior taking college-level psychology classes, has a head start on that goal. “I find it great that Hills has opportunities that other schools don’t,” she said.
But the future isn’t everything. Tenth-grader Alejandro Lopez is researching the effects various drinks, such as soda, have on plant growth as part of his first-year bioresearch class in the Sagan Academy. “It’s a great opportunity, not only for your future, but for your life here at Forest Hills.”
If the city’s next mayor, Bill DeBlasio, goes ahead with his plan to scrap the school-grading program, Gootnick and his administrators joke that their A will stand in perpetuity.
In reality, they’re still focusing on improvements. Gootnick is looking to replace the existing Smart Boards with newer ones. He also wants to establish science and English specialty programs that resemble Forest Hill’s Richard A. Brown Honors Law Institute, which is offered to regular-admission students and parallels the partially-selective Academic Opportunities Law and Humanities program.
And late sleepers, beware. “We’re going back to our roots on attendance,” Gootnick said.