Columbia Secondary School
MANHATTAN NY 10027 Map
Columbia Secondary School
Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering (CSS) is an academically challenging, racially mixed school founded with the backing of Columbia University, which promises to let qualified high school juniors and seniors take courses at Columbia for free. Opened with a 6th grade in 2007, the school is adding a grade each year until it serves students in grades 6-12.
The school suffered a setback after a student drowned during a school trip to a beach in June, 2010. The school’s founding principal, Jose Maldonado-Rivera was placed on probation, and several months later, in December, 2010, removed from the school when an investigation revealed that he had an improper relationship with the school’s former parent coordinator.
The arrival of principal Miriam Nightengale in August, 2011 has reinvigorated the school. An experienced teacher and administrator, Nightengale taught math for eight years at Brooklyn Tech and was the principal of the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice on the Martin Luther King Campus. She has added new classes and faculty as well as activities for high school students, like student government and dances. At the time of our visit, one 10th grader was already enrolled in a history class at Columbia. “The vibe last year was bad, but this year there definitely is new life in the building,” said a 10th grader who has been in the school since 7th grade.
The students we talked to were smart and articulate. The tone of the school is both sweet and laid back: Kids wear a uniform of jeans and polo shirts (light blue in middle, dark blue in high school). Students are engaged and well-behaved in class; relaxed and chatty during class changes.
The middle school blends traditional and progressive teaching methods. Math drills and grammar instruction help shore up basic skills, but there’s lots of hands-on learning and inventive projects. In 6th grade, students write similes about their first day of school. Seventh graders create a magazine on sustainable farming after spending a week away working on a farm upstate. Eighth graders design and build models of cities. By the end of middle school, students complete high school level Regents classes in Earth Science, Living Environment and Algebra. Spanish is the only foreign language taught.
Students in all grades study engineering and philosophy. In engineering, students explore topics ranging from construction and urban design to computer engineering. In philosophy, students learn the art of argument. For instance, as part of an 8th grade study on ethics and morality in fairy tales, some students argued whether or not trickery, as portrayed in Puss and Boots, is ever justified.
The school occupies the top two and a half floors of PS 125, a five story elementary school building, which also houses KIPP STAR. Its location is not ideal, but hallways are cheery, clean and nicely decorated. Most classrooms have new furniture; technology is abundant and science rooms are well equipped. CSS has exclusive use of one of the building’s two gyms and shares use of the cafeteria, auditorium, indoor pool and outdoor yard. The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a not-for-profit organization set up to support CSS, has raised over $400,000 for the school since it opened.
Special education: The school has extremely limited special education services.
After school: Students take elective classes scheduled at the end of select days. The eclectic offerings include drawing, graphic art, history of the cowboy and samurai, biking and sports. Exclusive offerings for high school students include Latin, musical theater, neuroscience and environmental science.
Admissions: For middle school, priority in admissions is given to students who live or attend school north of 96th Street. Applications are available in Spanish and English on the website. The most successful candidates score a 4 on at least one, and no less than 3 on either of the 4th grade state exams in math and English. Select applicants will be invited to take a written exam in early February.
The school has roughly 25 seats available for incoming 9th graders and a few for 10th graders. Admission to the high school is open to students citywide. The strongest candidates will have a grade of at least 90 in core subjects, but the admissions policy is flexible. Applicants with slightly lower grades, say an 85 in one or two subjects and higher grades in the rest will be given strong consideration too. All high school applicants must have a 3 or 4 on the 7th grade math and English state exams. (Laura Zingmond, October 2011)