H.S. 560 City-As-School
Manhattan NY 10014
Internships, high expectations and intensive support give students a second chance.
The school needs more space for collaborative learning, technology and a real gym.
City-As-School has provided a non-traditional academic haven for struggling students since 1972. It welcomes students who lost their way when they lost their homes, high-achieving kids who got off-track and were alienated at the city's top schools and teens who dropped out from boredom or because they were bullied one too many times for the way they looked.
The school is built around the idea that real-life experiences and hands-on learning will engage students. Most are 17 or 18 years old when they arrive. There are no grades, and City-As is part of a group of high schools that are exempt from all Regents except the English exam. In some ways, however, the school is more demanding than many traditional ones.
"There's no game that gets played," says Principal Alan Cheng, who is only the fourth principal since the school opened. "You've chosen to come here."
All students choose from more than 400 internships, which take up 15 to 25 hours per week. They rotate every eight weeks and are coupled with a set of readings and a weekly seminar. There are 15 full-time internship coordinators who place students in bakeries, nursing homes, senators' offices, the United Nations, bike shops and radio stations, to name a few. They are not meant to be vocational apprenticeships. "You don't work with a chef to learn how to cook," says Cheng, "but to build the skills and experience to choose a path that will be right for you." The goal is to develop intellectual curiosity as well as knowledge that will help students understand what it takes to make it in the world. "We are building stick-to-it-ness," says Cheng.
Teachers here are on a mission. They are allowed to design their own classes, rarely leave and many have 20 years or more of teaching experience. Some are also alums of the school and are starkly aware of the obstacles their students face.
Some students are undocumented immigrants, who must work and send money back home. Others are 18-year-olds living on their own, and some lack stable housing of any kind. Others transfer in from some of the city's most selective schools, such as Stuyvesant and LaGuardia. To handle the enormity of social issues, City-As has a battery of psychologists, guidance counselors, attendance teachers who do home visits, and a LYFE Center where students can leave their young children. Social workers help connect students to health care, legal assistance and food pantries.
Staff advisors are responsible for 20 students. There is a focus on building relationships among students and adults. "Advisors are responsible for pretty much everything about that child," said Cheng. "What is their relationship status? What happened to them yesterday? Did they have a fight with their grandmother?"
Much of the energy is focused on preparing students for what they will have to deal with after graduation. "We have never thought of ourselves as just a high school in terms of getting a diploma," says Cheng, "but what knowledge and behavior skills are necessary to succeed? Can they present themselves and information in a confident and clear way? Can they collaborate?" A full-time staff member works with students during their post-high school year. Another goes to CUNY colleges during summer and early fall to make sure everyone makes it through the enrollment process.
Classes usually include 15 to 20 students and are built around learning from experience. Students build "portfolios" and must present their work to their peers and panels of experts to graduate. In a science class on toxicology, students experiment with what grows well in the school's indoor garden. They then work with students in an economics class to start a small business, make lunches and sell them. On our visit we saw students working hard in classrooms and in the library. There were several students who arrived late to classes, but they got to work without disruption.
High-achieving students can take classes at the New School or the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Languages offered include Mandarin, Italian, French and Latin. Until 2012 the school had sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx in addition to Manhattan, but decided to consolidate them to better utilize staff and resources.
College: There is a dedicated college counselor and a career partnership coordinator who helps interested students set up a vocational year after high school. Students attend many different types of colleges including CUNYs and SUNYs, Hampshire, Williams, Green Mountain, Vanderbilt, Sarah Lawrence, Wesleyan, Oberlin, and Evergreen.
Special education: All students are integrated into mainstream classes, including those who were previously assigned to self-contained classrooms or are coming from institutions.
Admissions: Students are admitted in September, January and April. Students must be at least 17, although sometimes exceptions are made, and have at least 20 academic credits, including three in science and three in math. Interested students must attend an open house, held at the school twice a week, and go through an interview. (Meredith Kolodner, May 2012)