Lower East Side High School Plans IT Career Program

By Serena Solomon on March 10, 2014 7:52am 

 Elizabeth Collins, the principal of University Neighborhood High School, with some of her students.
Elizabeth Collins, the principal of University Neighborhood High School, with some of her students.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

LOWER EAST SIDE — A Downtown school that fought off a tech school moving into its building is now planning to develop its own technology program.

Elizabeth Collins, the principal of University Neighborhood High School, said plans were already underway for a career and technical education (CTE) program with a focus on information technology that could be implemented by as early as fall 2015.

University Neighborhood High School was told on Feb. 27 that it would no longer be required to cram another school into its century-old building on Monroe Street. The addition of hundreds of students and a second school would have ended Collins' dream of attracting more neighborhood kids with the school's own career-oriented technology program.

"My first step was to bring safety and then improve the academics," said Collins, who has taken the school from a D grade to an A grade in the four years she has been principal. "Now, I want to go further to make the students ready to enter the world."

Along with developing a CTE program, Collins, who moved to the United States in 1998 from Poland, wants to expand the school's population from 300 to 500 and attract more local students.

The school already has higher education partners in NYU and Baruch College, which is required for a CTE program certified by New York state. Students are also gaining workplace experience in finance at Deloitte, meeting another CTE requirement, and Collins said she was in talks with Goldman Sachs for other work placement opportunities.

The school recently installed computer labs in three classrooms in preparation for the proposed CTE program. 

"I want all my students to go to college and if for whatever reason they can't, they will have the skills and a certificate to find a job," said Collins, adding that about 25 percent of the school is listed as special needs and one in every three students is an English language learner.

Students who qualify and then complete the program will receive a certificate equivalent to an Advanced Regents diploma, according to Collins.

Q: How did your experience as a teacher prepare you for the principal position at University Neighborhood High School?

A: In Poland, I taught math for several years in a high school. I was also a teacher and counselor at a prison school for students who had a court sentence.

I learned from this experience that I need to know every single child who is coming into this school. I need to know not only his or her grade and attendance, but also what the child is coming from, how I can help and what I can expect from this child.

I believe that all children are born good and the environment is changing them — their families, their peers and everything that is surrounding them.

I focus on positive reinforcement. I do not believe in punishing. You can go much further by being positive — compliment someone, set higher expectations.

Q: How did you turn the school around from a grade D to an A?

A: My biggest thing was to make everyone accountable. There was no more blaming. They [the students] were failing because they were not doing their homework, because they were talking [in class], because they were not at school, because, because, because ...

I am a mathematician, so numbers speak to me. For every student, I need to know his or her progress during every single marking period.

Every adult in the building serves as a mentor to students, not just the teachers, but secretaries, even the janitor and the cafeteria staff. I have two students I mentor and I am checking with them at least on a biweekly basis, calling home if a student is absent, talking to parents on the phone.

Q: About half your teachers left in your first year as principal. What role did teachers play in turning the school around?

A: The whole entire summer [in 2010] was spent on hiring new teachers. These last few years we have had very little turnover. I think I have the best teachers in New York City.

My biggest emphasis is on teacher profession development. Students are very happy because on Monday they have a short day. Teachers stay for an additional two hours for faculty meetings and training. By grade level, teachers also meet during the week where they look through the students' work, discuss students. What is special at this school is we treat every single student individually.

Q: More than 74 percent of your students make it to college and after 18 months 69 percent of them are still enrolled. How do you make your students college ready?

A: It is not only the skills students gain here, it is the culture. We try to tell them that there is no other way for you to enter your adult life than with a college diploma.

We recently ordered four classes' worth of laptops. I want all English classes to be taught on computers because this is the college way. I want all my students to know how to take notes, how to write reports and even send their papers to professors. So college readiness is coming through the actual instruction.

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