Yes, the halls are ridiculously crowded between classes and yes, some students eat lunch when the rest of us are having breakfast, but despite the packed conditions, Francis Lewis High School more than copes.
The city’s most popular and overcrowded school has a current enrollment of 4,500 in a building that was constructed for 1,800 to 2,000 students, according to Principal Musa Ali Shama, who has headed the school for a year. But with a dedicated staff and engaged students, Shama says the Fresh Meadows school is flourishing.
“Success breeds success,” he said, explaining the school’s popularity, “and we want people to know how well we’re doing.”
Although parents and faculty members want the enrollment at Lewis to decrease, the Department of Education refuses to cap the number of students at any high school. Shama thinks the DOE can do more to help the situation at Lewis and expects some changes next year that will shrink the number to 4,200.
By doing so, the school will be able to eliminate one extra period and Shama is hoping the following year another one can be dropped. The school now opens at 7:15 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. with 13 periods in split sessions.
Shama believes the school can more realistically handle 3,700 to 4,000 youngsters and he wants to attract as many District 26 students as possible. “We are in District 26, which is one of the highest achieving school districts in the state,” he said. “With all the negative publicity about the overcrowded conditions here, we don’t want parents to rule us out.”
Methods to decrease the enrollment next year include the city not requiring Lewis to take students from lower-achieving schools under the No Child Left Behind program. This year there were 60 of them.
In addition, youngsters living outside the district who apply for specialized programs at Lewis will only be allowed 50 percent of the slots. Previously, it was 100 percent. “We are advising students from the district if they want to be in a specialized program, to put Francis Lewis as their zoned school and then when they’re here, tell us they want to be in one of the programs.”
The three specialties are math and science research, university scholars and law.
And lastly, Shama promises to be more diligent at checking addresses to make sure students who said they live in the neighborhood actually do.
But Arthur Goldstein, United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Lewis, believes it will take a lot more pressure on the DOE before improvements are made. “It seems to me the DOE is indifferent to neighborhood schools. They did nothing to help Jamaica and now are closing it,” he said. “If we don’t consistently and actively stand up for Lewis, they’ll gladly overload us beyond capacity until we fail and close too.”
A big booster of the school, Shama likes to publicize the students’ achievements and how well Lewis does academically. He selects a student of the month and can list just about every honor and achievement the school has received.
“We are as competitive as specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and outperfom all others except Stuyvesant,” he said.
Two of his students are among the tops in the country based on their Siemens math, science and technology competiton entry. Israt Ahmed and Cathy Zhou were regional finalists and last weekend, they and a third student from Stuyvesant won a joint $40,000 scholarship in the national competition.
The principal will tell you that Francis Lewis achieved an A rating from the city, only one of three Queens schools to receive the designation, and a “well developed” score on its annual quality review.
Francis Lewis also prides itself on its JROTC program and banners throughout the facility proclaim the achievements of its cadets. The program began in 1994 with 155 cadets and now is 670 strong. They have won virtually every competition entered throughout the country.
Also highly visible is Lewis’ marching band, which performs in numerous parades around the city, and the school’s concert choir, which has received six consecutive gold ratings in state competition.
Arnie Rosenbaum, the school’s athletic director, who has taught there for 17 years, is proud of the girls volleyball team, which he coaches. They recently won the city championsihip for the third year in a row. “Every team in the school this fall made it to the playoffs,” Rosenbaum said.
Then there’s Lewis’ dance program, jazz band and more. “It’s definitely a challenge for students to find time for after-school activities,” the principal said, noting that some have to come back to the building hours after their classes are finished to participate.
Department heads also boast of the school’s achievements and say the crowded conditions have their upside. Royden Lobel is asssistant principal for social studies and believes the faculty is committed to moving the students forward. “How we accomodate the large numbers doesn’t affect the quality of programs,” Lobel said.
David Marmor, assistant principal for the science department, agrees. “The size of the school is our greatest strength,” Marmor said. Because the day is extended, the staff is here until 7 p.m. and if students want to do extra work or have clubs, the resources are here.”
He points to a new three-year forensics science academy, which prepares students for study at John Jay College. “I don’t know of any other school with such a program,” he said.
Lobel is just as proud of his department, which offers a law academy, and notes it’s the most applied to law program in the city. “We get over 4,000 applications for 125 spots,” he said.
The law program has three teams: moot court, mock trial and the debate team. All compete and do well, he added.
“There are also a lot of opportunities to participate in out-of-school programs,” Lobel said. “And by next September, we hope to give a work-based experience,” Lobel said.
The department head downplays the school’s overcrowding. “I would rather have kids that want to be here, and the teachers like to be here, too,” Lobel said.
Joe Chou heads the math department and has worked at Francis Lewis for 21 years. “We always have an award-winning math team that usually places second or third statewide,” Chou said. “For a non-specialized school, we probably have the best performing math students in the city.”
Despite the students’ honors and officials dealing with the overcrowded conditions, the principal says he needs the help of parents to put pressure on the DOE to reduce the enrollment. “We don’t want to be seen as a commuter school where students just come to class and go home,” Shama said.