Columbia Secondary School

Phone: (212) 666-1278
Website: Click here
Admissions: Selective
Wheelchair accessible
Neighborhood: Harlem
District: 5
Grade range: 06 thru 12
Parent coordinator: ANDI VAYDA

What's special:

Free Columbia University classes, courses in engineering and philosophy

The downside:

Space in elementary school building not ideal

Middle School Stats


High School Stats


Our review

Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering (CSS) is an academically challenging and diverse school founded with the backing of Columbia University, which lets qualified high school juniors and seniors take courses at Columbia for free. Most students start in the 6th grade and stay through 12th. By the end of middle school, students complete high school–level Regents classes in Earth science, U.S. history and algebra, which puts them on track to tackle lots of college-level coursework before graduation.

The school occupies the top three floors of PS 125, a five-story elementary school building, which also houses KIPP STAR. The building is designed for a younger population, so space is a little cramped and the hallways are narrow, although high school students do have lockers. Columbia Secondary has exclusive use of one of the building’s two gyms and shares use of the cafeteria, auditorium, indoor pool and outdoor yard. Kids wear a uniform of jeans and polo shirts (light blue in middle, dark blue in high school).

Students in all grades study engineering and philosophy, which reinforce the kinds of academic skills needed for higher level coursework, according to Principal Miriam Nightengale, who taught math at Brooklyn Tech and was the principal of the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice before arriving at Columbia Secondary.

“Engineering really supports math instruction so kids get more practice at computation and practical applications of math,” said Nightengale. In engineering classes, students explore topics ranging from construction and urban design to computer programming.

In philosophy, students learn the art of argument. 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. By high school they are reading Plato’s Republic and contributing to the school’s philosophy journal, Contrariwise. 

Instruction in middle school blends traditional and progressive teaching methods. Math drills and grammar instruction help shore up basic skills, but there’s also a lot 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. Students study Latin in the 6th grade and are taught Spanish starting in the 7th grade.

In high school, students who are up to the challenge can take courses at Columbia tailored to their skills and interests. For instance, some students take Calculus or linear algebra for credit at Columbia. Those who aren’t quite ready can take non-college credit Calculus at Columbia Secondary. In addition to math, course options at Columbia, which vary by semester, have included psychology, sociology, computer science, chemistry, and a history class on the Roman Empire. Students can also take Advanced Placement courses in biology, English, physics and Spanish. 

There’s no avoiding rigorous math and science at this school, and some students who start off strong in these subjects falter when they transition to high school–level work. To combat this trend the school is working with educators from Teachers College to develop ways to help smart kids overcome their fear of failure. “Students sometimes shut down in the face of difficulty and rather than doing poorly in something, they don’t do it at all,” said Nightengale explaining that particularly in math and science, students need to understand that struggling is part of the process of learning. 

Elective classes and extracurricular activities are varied — but low on sports — and include biking, architecture, musical theater, organic gardening, neuroscience, student newspaper and underwater robotics.

To ease the college application process, the school has a fulltime college counselor. Students from Columbia Secondary’s first graduating class in June 2014 were accepted to a range of schools including Barnard, Cal. Tech, Columbia, M.I.T., Middlebury, University of Michigan, Vanderbilt and Weslyan.

Special education: The school has a very small population of students with special needs. It offers Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classes in select grades.

Admissions: For middle school, priority is given to students who live or attend school north of 96th Street in Manhattan. Applications are available in Spanish and English on the website. The most successful candidates score a 4 on at least one of the 4th-grade state exams in math and English and no less than a 3. Select applicants will be invited to take a written exam in early February.

The school has about 15-20 seats available for incoming 9th-graders and a few for 10th-graders, but it varies by year. Admission to the high school is citywide. The strongest candidates will have a grade of at least 90 in core subjects. 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, updated February 2014)

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