INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: CLICK ON THE ARROW TO THE RIGHT TO EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF JAMAICA HIGH SCHOOL
Credit: Nigel Chiwaya
QUEENS — In 1985, Jamaica High School was recognized as the best in the country, the result of nearly a century of powerhouse academics.
It counted a number prominent writers, lawyers and others among its graduates, including novelist Paul Bowles, President Richard Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell, author Art Buchwald, poet Alan Dugan and director Francis Ford Coppola.
But a few years later, the school slid into a decline from which it would never recover.
Last month, the school that was once the largest in the country, graduated its final class of just 24 students.
“It’s a real tragedy in my opinion,” said Assemblyman David Weprin, who graduated from the school in 1974, as did his brother Mark Weprin, a city councilman, former Jamaica Councilman Leroy Comrie, and Elliot “Lee” Sander, the former commissioner of the Department of Transportation and executive director of the MTA.
"They don’t build high schools like that anymore.”
The school on Gothic Drive was built in 1927 in the classic Georgian Revival style on a hill surrounded by trees and lawn. It has become a neighborhood landmark even for those who didn't attend.
"Academically the place was outstanding — it had a very rich curriculum and was recognized as a great school,” said Richard Hourahan, collections manager at the Queens Historical Society. “People wanted to go Jamaica High School.”
Before the Gothic Drive building opened, students went to Jamaica Public School, a three-story wooden building on 161st Street, just off Jamaica Avenue, according to Carl Ballenas, a Queens historian who authored a book about Jamaica.
The building, which no longer exists, was built in 1853 and housed several schools. In 1892, Ballenas said, “in one of the rooms they started a high school.”
Classes were held there until a new building on Hillside Avenue and 162nd Street was constructed in 1896, specifically for Jamaica High School.
The building, designed by prominent Brooklyn architect William Tubby in the Dutch Revival style, was granted New York City landmark status last year.
Originally, it “housed 115 students and 7 teachers,” according to the Queens Historical Society. But “by 1909, the high school had grown to 826 students with 36 teachers.”
In 1927, a new and much bigger building was completed at 168st Street and Gothic Drive to accommodate the growing number of students, Ballenas said.
The building, designed by William Gompert, featured granite columns and 83 classrooms. It also had an auditorium, several gyms, a swimming pool and a series of tracks.
According to the Queens Historical Society, at the time, it was “the largest school site in the country, with almost 625,000 square feet.”
Judith Todman, the chief archivist at the Queens Public Library, called the building, which was also landmarked in 2009, “iconic.”
“When you walked in ... you felt the rich sense of history,” she said in an email.
“I got a great education there,” said Weprin, whose mother, Sylvia, taught biology, chemistry and Spanish at the school for about 40 years. “Even back then, there were so many different electives and special courses to take.”
Weprin said he received his first lesson in politics at the school, when he unsuccessfully ran to become a vice president of the student government.
At that time, he said, the school had a dress code and students had to wear “button-down shirts and nice slacks,” he said.
In 1950, the high school was reported to have the largest enrollment in the borough, with 4,613 students.
In 1985, it had the third lowest drop-out rate in the city and was named the best secondary school in America by the U.S. Department of Education.
But in the 1990s, the school started to struggle and enrollment declined.
In a 2010 document, the Department of Education "put the school in the bottom 7 percent of all high schools that received a 2009-2010 Progress Report."
The report also said that the school's graduation rates remained around or below 50 percent for more than a decade and that safety had also become a concern at Jamaica High School. In 2007, the school was placed on the state's list of Persistently Dangerous schools.
Eventually, the Department of Education decided to close the school. No new students had been admitted to the school since 2011, but those who were already enrolled were allowed to stay until they graduated. The last class had only 24 graduating seniors.
The building, which is currently being renovated, will continue to provide space for several other institutions, including Queens Collegiate, Hillside Arts and Letters Academy and High School for Community Leadership, according to the Department of Education.
Weprin said he wants the complex to keep the Jamaica High School name. He said he will discuss the issue with the Department of Education and will introduce a bill in Albany.
After the school closed, the Queens Library received many of the school's archives, including its newsletters, year books and class photos.
Todman said that “by the end of the summer, they will be available for nostalgic students and faculty, genealogy researchers and Queens history lovers.”
“Jamaica High School lives on at the Archives at Queens Library," she noted.