NEW DORP — For years, New Dorp High School was not highly regarded in Staten Island’s public education system. The graduation rates were low, and the number of kids who were repeatedly absent was very high.
Parents did not see the school as a good option for their kids, and in 1999 the number of families who attended the open house was just 25, principal Deirdre DeAngelis remembers.
“When I got here in ’91, we had 1,600 students, 300 absent a day. We had over 100 long-term absences,” she said. “We were struggling. The people of Staten Island did not trust us as a viable choice for their child’s high school experience.”
Since DeAngelis became principal at the school, however, things have turned around drastically.
The graduation rate has climbed to nearly 78 percent and the daily attendance reached between 90 percent and 92 percent last year. The school was also hailed as a model for education reform in a September article in the Atlantic magazine.
And now, DeAngelis said she has parents calling before their child has started at the high school, to request a place in one of eight tailored learning programs, or communities, that New Dorp High School offers.
“We have parents that are calling us in sixth and seventh-grade asking if we can save their child a seat in forensics, or a seat in the fine arts program,” DeAngelis said. The school declines to reserve spots for children before they enroll, and entry to the various programs is performance-based.
DeAngelis attributes the shift to a dedicated faculty and a focus on developing students' writing skills from the ground up, using the Judith Hochman writing system.
DNAinfo.com New York recently sat with DeAngelis to talk about the changes in the school and what's on the horizon.
Q: What has changed in the school since you started?
A: We weren’t a smaller-learning community school. We were a mass of students and there were two programs in place. There was a start of a third program but the structure wasn’t very apparent. It was just a large mass of students and it wasn't as personalized as it is now. So students live now in one of eight communities; they're led by an assistant principal, two teacher coordinators, a dedicated guidance counselor, and a dedicated school aide.
We focused on both a structural and instructional change to the building, like an internal reform, and our instructional reform came out of a very strong inquiry process where we reviewed student work, student data results on regents, and we really, really investigated, on a very small skill base. We got very small in terms of drilling down to the skills that were absent in the skill set for kids, and then we looked at those skills which would give us the biggest leverage for change.
Q: What did you focus on in the change of the curriculum to help the school?
A: I think that up until now it was an assumption that kids were learning how to write in elementary school and middle school and we were finding that that wasn’t true when they got here. They might have been taught it, but it didn’t transfer over to what it had to. We made it our goal to explicitly teach writing through the Judith Hochman writing system.
A ninth-grader comes in and we don’t assume that they have any kind of writing skills either way. They go into English and we start to teaching them about writing, but we start at the sentence level. We don’t turn around and say, “Write us an essay, write us a paragraph.” We start at the sentence. We want them to write good, good sentences. Because if you think about it: if a kid writes an amazing sentence and then pairs it with a couple of other amazing sentences, we have a paragraph. And if they organize paragraphs well, they have an essay. And if they do really well, we have a research paper. That’s what we do.
Q: Were you worried that this change in writing wasn’t going to work?
A: I didn’t know but my teachers did. I had lead teachers that really, really believed in it and then it spread from the teachers [to the school body]. A lot of what has taken place here, a lot of the changes in the focus of the curriculum, really is borne from the teachers. They have a common period every day to collaborate and now this year they actually have 90 minutes of common time every Tuesday afternoon so they really work hard to talk to their colleagues.
It’s very organic here; the teachers have grown it. I lead it, the teachers grew it.
Q: How did it feel to see the Atlantic article after all the hard work?
A: It was mixed. It was very flattering to see that in a national magazine, but at the same time I think they painted the school to be a little more dismal then it needed to be and I think they painted the staff as being contrary to change a little more than it really was. Maybe that’s just my perception.
Q: What’s next for the school?
A: We want to definitely break the 80 percent graduation rate. We’re a little short on that. We just want to continue to improve the programs that we can offer students, improve our connection with the community and real world businesses so that students have that real world connection to make better decisions about what their future should look like. So that’s important. And of course our main thing is to increase the percentage of students who go on to college and are successful in college. We want to be sure that they’re ready when they leave here.