Columbia Secondary School
Manhattan NY 10027
Free Columbia University classes; courses in engineering and philosophy
Far more applicants than seats
Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering (CSS) is an academically challenging and ethnically diverse school founded with the backing of Columbia University. Qualified high school juniors and seniors may take courses at Columbia University for free.
Students in all grades study engineering and philosophy, which offer the opportunity for imaginative projects as well as a solid academic foundation for college, says Principal Miriam Nightengale.
In an engineering project, students built a solar-powered chicken coop in a vacant lot a few blocks from the school. The design problem they solved: how to keep the water used to feed the chickens from freezing in the winter. In philosophy, they read Plato, Aristotle, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes; they ponder ethical questions and learn how to construct a logical argument.
“Our graduates tell us these are the most useful classes when they get to college,” says Nightengale, who taught math at Brooklyn Tech and was the principal of the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice before arriving at CSS.
Most students start in the 6th grade and stay through 12th. Sixth-graders study Latin; 7th-graders begin Spanish. 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.
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. For example, students incorporated Fibonnaci numbers—a sequence of numbers named after the 13th century Italian mathematician—into art projects depicting spirals in nature. Math becomes not just a tool for problem-solving, but an aesthetically pleasing discipline.
Juniors and seniors may take courses at Columbia University tailored to their skills and interests. Course options, which vary by semester, have included calculus, linear algebra, psychology, sociology, computer science, chemistry, and a history class on the Roman Empire. Students may also take Advanced Placement courses in biology, English, physics and Spanish.
Elective classes and extracurricular activities are varied but low on sports; they include biking, architecture, musical theater, organic gardening, neuroscience, student newspaper and underwater robotics.
The school has an unusually well-staffed college office, with two full-time counselors and one part-time counselor. Graduates have been admitted top-notch private colleges and universities including Columbia, New York University, Yale, MIT, and Rice; large public universities including UCLA, University of Michigan and SUNY schools; and smaller liberal arts colleges such as Middlebury, St. Olaf’s, Goucher and Clark.
The school occupies the top three floors of a five-story elementary school building, which also houses KIPP STAR Charter Middle School and PS 125. 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. CSS shares the gymnasiums, cafeteria, auditorium, indoor pool and outdoor yard with other schools in the building. Kids wear a uniform of jeans and polo shirts (light blue in middle, dark blue in high school).
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school has only a few children with special needs. It has Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) and self-contained classes in select grades, varying from year to year.
ADMISSIONS: The middle school is open to children who live or attend public school north of 96th Street in Manhattan. Most successful candidates score a 4 on at least one of the 4th-grade state exams in math and English. Select applicants are invited to take an entrance exam in February. The principal ranks applicants in a way to ensure a balance of children from districts 3, 4, 5 and 6. See the school’s website for details.
The high school is open to students citywide who have grades of at least 90 in core subjects. Select applicants are interviewed and asked to write an essay. There are more than 1,300 applicants for 100 seats in 6th grade and more than 2,000 applicants for 20 seats in 9th grade. (Laura Zingmond, February 2014; Clara Hemphill, May 2017)
About the students
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Programs and Admissions
Bengali, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish
Advanced Placement (AP) courses
AP Biology, AP English, AP Environmental Science, AP Physics, AP Spanish, AP US History
Boys PSAL teams
Basketball, Rugby, Soccer
Girls PSAL teams
Basketball, Cross Country, Rugby, Soccer, Volleyball