Hillcrest High School
QUEENS NY 11432 Map
Hillcrest High School
Hillcrest is a large, orderly neighborhood school with energetic teachers who get to know the students well and students who aren’t afraid to speak up in class. It is divided into nine smaller programs, including a Pre-Med Institute that has steered many students towards M.D. and R.N degrees.
Every morning, watched over by several police officers, thousands of students stream past delis and houses to climb the gentle hill on which the school sits. Inside, the atmosphere is calm and ordered as students pass through metal detectors. Wide hallways and large classrooms filled with light help lessen the effects of overcrowding, as do three staggered entrance times. The school is diverse, serving an influx of West Indian, Russian, Arab, South Asian, Dominican, Puerto Rican and African immigrants as well as long-established African American families. A large selection of teams, electives, clubs, and languages (Spanish, French, Benagli and Modern Arabic) offers something for everyone.
In 2006, with a grant from the Gates Foundation, Hillcrest made the transition from one large school into nine career-oriented programs overseen by one principal. Each “small learning community,” or SLC, as they are called, serve roughly 450 students and has its own set of teachers, its own director, guidance counselor and suite of classrooms. In addition to Pre-Med, the school offers Humanities, Business Tech, Teaching, Theatre, Health Careers, and Public Service and law. Students get instruction in core subjects of math, science, social studies and English and most of their elective classes from their own program's faculty. Sports, clubs, and the school’s art and music programs are open to all Hillcrest students.
The small learning communities seem to be serving Hillcrest well. The school’s graduation rate went up 20 percent, its Progress Report steadily improved, and suspensions declined in the five years after the SLCs were introduced. “If anything, I think we’ve become closer as a staff,” said Perdo Cubero, director of the program in Public Service and Law. “The way guidance works in collaboration with the teachers, we really work as a team.”
Two small programs serving at-risk students in smaller classes seem supportive, including the Senior Future Academy for seniors: “I’m in Senior Academy for cutting classes,” said a boy wearing a suit and tie in preparation for a job interview after school. His classmate said she likes that she can make up credits online, even from home, using the iZone program. Newcomers Academy is an immersion program for those have been in the country less than one year. “It’s the most difficult group because everything is new,” said a social worker. “They really cling to us.” In some classes, those from the same country work in small groups together so they can support each other.
Many rooms had desks facing front in jumbled-looking rows and teachers posed rapid-fire questions to keep kids interested. There is a pointed effort to draw out girls especially those from countries where education is not a priority for girls, like Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We try to push them outside their comfort zone,” said Principal Stephen Duch. There are almost twice as many girls as boys at Hillcrest. According to assistant principal John Michalos this is because Hillcrest offers programs that are more female-dominated, like teaching, health, theater and humanities.
One girl in a lilac headscarf did most of the talking as she stood with two boys in front of the class discussing First Amendment rights pertaining to religion. “We want thinkers who can connect ideas,” said David Morrison, the assistant principal of English. After reading a section of Dante’s Inferno, about lust, teens discussed Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Kids were asked to create “life quotes” based on A Raisin in the Sun” and came up with a variety of themes: “Mama is always trying to support the family,” said one.
Not all students will necessarily pursue the track they’re on, nor did all choose it in the first place. David, a senior, placed in Teaching as a 9th grader, wants to be an engineer. He has nevertheless found value in spending time in elementary classrooms. “It has been quite an eye-opening experience for me,” he said.
Many 9th graders arrive with low reading scores and we saw some poor spelling and grammar as students worked in small groups, though peers corrected each other when the teacher prompted them to be “human spell checkers” for each other. The engineering teacher designed a class in which kids build model airplanes and straw and paper structures and learn 3D animation. “Some have never built anything in their lives, not even a kite,” he said.
Hillcrest offers nine Advanced Placement courses. Students may also take college classes at York and Queensborough community colleges. College acceptances include Queens College, Hunter, Stony Brook University and Queensborough Community College.
Special education: Special needs students, including 70 with physical challenges, are taught with general education students and two teachers, one trained in special education. We observed a child in a wheelchair work alongside four peers as they discussed a novel. The school also offers SETSS (special education teacher support services).
Admissions: Priority to students who live in the zonedl. The pre-med and humanities programs have screened admissions, students must audition for the theater program and the remainder follow the education option formula, which accepts students of all levels. (Lydie Raschka, October 2011)