CLAREMONT — For some students at the Bronx High School for Medical Science, the most sought-after classes aren’t fancy foreign languages or automatic “A” electives — they’re math and English.
That’s because the school has decided that while its honors-program juniors can load up on classes like trigonometry and graduate early, at least some of its non-honors juniors will forgo any math or English courses at all for a semester or two and make up those credits later, according to several students and some current and former staff.
General-ed juniors are worried that while they wait for those core courses, their skills are slipping and their chances of scoring well on their SATs and getting into college are dwindling.
A few students have even met with the principal, guidance counselors and teachers — including one from another school — to plead for math and English instruction.
Two juniors, Eddie Duarte and Kavoy Mayne, met with a guidance counselor, who also insisted that the school was short on teachers, the students said.
Duarte even asked his wrestling coach, who teaches math and science at another school in the Taft Educational Campus where Medical Science is located, if the coach could teach him trigonometry.
“Our SATs are coming up,” Eddie said. “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to be ready for those without math or English.”
Kavoy added, “I feel like this school is just setting you up for a two-year college."
In response, the school claims it simply doesn’t have enough teachers to offer the students those basic classes this semester, but that the students will eventually earn enough credits to graduate, several people said.
“Since the school is always short on teachers and rooms, kids miss out on a competitive education,” said Valerie Harmon, who taught for seven years at Medical Science before leaving this year to teach in South Africa.
“I am very sorry for those kids,” she added in an email, “because they truly are heroic, and intelligent, and deserving of an enriching education.”
The school’s principal, William Quintana, did not return phone or email messages.
Department of Education spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the school maintains five English teachers and six math teachers for its 460 students, which is “adequate to meet the needs of students.”
“DOE will work with the school to ensure all students are meeting graduation requirements,” Feinberg added in an email.
The sole subject the DOE requires high school students to take each year is physical education. It only requires that they earn a certain number of credits in the other subjects to graduate.
Last year, nearly 1,400 students applied for just 81 freshman seats at Medical Science, a selective-admission middle and high school where students sport green medical scrubs and the graduation rate hovers well above the city average.
Students who enter with high grades and extra credits are enrolled in the school’s honors program, which offers the chance to graduate early and take advanced courses.
But several people said that the program consists almost entirely of students who attended the Medical Science middle school and earned high school credits early. Students who arrive after eighth grade or try to work their way into the program later rarely are accepted, they said.
“When we applied for this high school, they offered an honors program that the kids are supposed to graduate in three years,” said Mariela Torres, whose daughter, Marcela Pinos, is a junior at Medical Science.
But while Pinos has maintained a 91-percent cumulative average, according to school records she shared, “she never gets an honors class,” Torres said.
“No matter how well a general-ed student would do in their classes, they hardly ever would be transferred to the honors class,” Harmon added.
Classes at all levels of Medical Science are self-contained, meaning that students are grouped into cohorts that remain in the same room all day and take the same courses.
Pinos' non-honors 11th-grade cohort has science, history, Spanish, music and phys ed this semester — but no math or English courses.
Pinos and a few classmates have gone to great lengths this year to get those basic classes.
They approached an electives teacher to ask if she could provide them reading and writing instruction, the teacher said.
“The students asked me, ‘Miss, why don’t you teach us ELA [English language arts],'" said the veteran teacher, who is new to Medical Science. “This is the first time I’ve seen students not get core courses."
Torres met with Quintana, the principal, who told her the school was meeting legal requirements and that students would earn enough credits to graduate, she said. He added that the school might offer at least math to those students next semester, but that the school has a limited number of teachers, Torres said.
“He told me, ‘Don’t worry about her. She has another year to get the credits,’” Torres said.
But “if she doesn’t have no English, no math, how do you expect that she’s going to do well in college?”
A current staff member said, "we don't have a teacher for everything," but insisted the students would get math and possibly English next semester.
"It eventually happens," the teacher said. "The kids just aren't patient."
Harmon, the former Medical Science teacher, blames the teacher shortage and missing classes on limited school resources and DOE restrictions on how schools spend money.
Megan Hester, collaborative coordinator at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said the school may have been forced to make a “devil’s bargain” between funding the honors program and providing those basic courses every semester.
She noted that an Annenberg analysis shows that only 1 in 10 high school graduates in the Claremont neighborhood where Medical Science is located meet the state’s college-readiness benchmarks.
“It speaks to how budget constrains can limit a school’s ability to prepare kids for college,” said Hester. "Schools should be concerned about getting students to that level, not just getting them sufficient credits.”
Feinberg, the DOE spokeswoman, added, “The budget and human resource allocation for the school does not reflect a shortfall.”