Long Island’s Flawed Regional Science High School Concept

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, then it is not a regional science high school.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's new, New York Education Reform Commission is on record favoring the creation of regional high schools, and presumably so is the Governor. 

Long Island’s first science “regional high school” will open in September.  This is supposed to be a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) school.  STEM schools are all the rage around the country now. Science, technology, engineering and math are the very academic pursuits purportedly so vital to America keeping and developing new jobs in the highly competitive global economy.  So, creating a “regional STEM high school” sounds like a great idea here on Long Island. 

We did not need this governor or his commission to think up the idea. An early version was proposed by thn Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 to be started in Hauppauge, “… but local school officials squelched that idea.”

A second more recent proposal was made "to open a full-day STEM charter school on the campus of SUNY College at Old Westbury, starting with 125 ninth-graders in the fall and growing to 450 high schoolers by its fifth year”. But that drew the ire of the educational establishment under the guise that charter schools draw funding away from public school districts and thus pose a threat to those lucrative administrative and union teaching jobs in the pubic schools. 

The real problem the public schools have with a charter school is that the option to attend such a school would rest exclusively with the prospective students and their parents and not with their school district. 

Contemplating starting a STEM school should have generated an immediate best practices review of existing magnet high schools. This would certainly have taken planners to the best of the best, New York City’s nine specialized (magnet) high schools who have, over the decades, produced Nobel laureates, and other noted scientists, as well as statesmen, journalists and authors.

The New York City magnet schools have a selective admission policy, by test score ranking for admission, by school. They are full-day schools with a complete curriculum but with emphasis in the area of each school’s specialization. You may have heard of these schools:

  • Stuyvesant High School
  • Bronx High School of Science
  • Brooklyn Technical High School
  • Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
  • High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College
  • Staten Island Technical School
  • The Brooklyn Latin School
  • High School of American Studies at Lehman College
  • Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

In addition there are a number of other public schools in New York City with similar but slightly different formats:

  • Hunter College High School
  • Pace University High School
  • Harry S. Truman Bronx Health Sciences High School

New York City is well versed in this concept of specialized, magnet schools, and has been for decades.

Right now there is another new entrant into the growing cadre of STEM schools in America: the Fairchild Wheeler Regional High School in Trumbull, Conn., which will open this August.  Connecticut’s Governor apparently loves education more than Andrew Cuomo does, because his state is fully funding this school, which will also be full-time with a complete curriculum. However, it will consist of three highly specialized wings each specializing in specific disciplines, but all connected on the same campus:

  • Information Technology & Software Engineering
  • Zoological Science, Research & Biotechnology,
  • Physical Sciences, Engineering & Aerospace/Hydrospace Sciences

This will be a truly regional school, serving seven specific localities, each having its own allocation of reserved seats based on their local student populations. Admission will be open and decisions made using a lottery where specific disciplines or district allocations are over-subscribed. Fairchild Wheeler will eventually serve 1,500 Connecticut students. 

The salient features of all 13 specialized regional schools I listed are these:

Full day, full curriculum, no “tuition” cost to the sending district, and (subject in some cases to test scores) opportunity and election is up to the students and their parents, and not subject to the board of education picking and choosing, or outright denying these opportunities.  In other words, they are truly student-centric.

So what gives with this phony-baloney Nassau BOCES “regional (STEM) high school”?  Half-day programming requiring two long bus rides to/from the home district schools?  …a heavy tuition burden on the home districts’ budgets?  … with school boards controlling participation, or non-participation? …and 54 local school districts vying for 50 seats each year in one program?  …located in the wealthiest quadrant of the county?

These nagging questions point to the bigger and emergent problem. With the educational establishment, including the unions and heavily vested administrators as well as the politicians controlled by the unions in charge of making these decisions, I don’t think Long Island students will get a fair shake at any of the benefits of specialized regional high schools, you know, like the students in New York City have had for a long time now, and as the students is the region of Trumbull, Conn. will be enjoying starting this August……thus making public schools in Nassau County less and less relevant as time progresses. 

Less relevant, and yet more and more expensive to operate. Educational dinosaurs.  

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Wayne Smith January 18, 2013 at 04:15 PM
Chris: I don''t necessarily represent a mainstream view on this issue but I'll state it anyway: the shame of our education system on Long Island is that it runs counter to the ideal that every kid ought to have an equal chance to develop him or herself. With 120+ school districts, with varying levels of relative wealth, the child lucky enough to live in a rich area will go to a better school, with a more extensive curriculum, more extracurricular options and more up-to-date technology and will therefore have a serious leg up compared to the kid who grows up in more modest circumstances. Specialized regional school are one way to help overcome this problem, But I'm afraid your analysis, to the extent that it identifies the institutional barriers that are likely to impede progress in this area, is totally accurate.
Chris Wendt January 21, 2013 at 11:34 AM
Wayne, part of the problem is that there is not much of a mainstream view on this issue, here, yet. For most people, their emotional attachment to the home team, their school (district) colors, and their neighborhood schools blunts or dampens any desire to contemplate changing the way education is organized and governed (locally) on LI. This deserves consideration: why was the educational establishment so adamantly and successfully opposed to both prior science high school concepts: Mario Cuomo's 1994 initiative for Hauppauge, and the more recent intent to open a full-day STEM charter school on the campus of SUNY College at Old Westbury? Who is this educational establishment, and what is their relationship to the students of Long Island and their parents whom our schools are supposed to serve? I have now been told by a reliable source that Andrew Cuomo had little if anything at all to do with the ultimate decision to create this a half-day BOCES program and call it a "Regional (STEM) High School". This is strictly a local decision that apparently did not involve much or any public input from around the "region". Frightening. (Or, it should be),
hardworkingdad February 03, 2013 at 11:45 AM
While I agree with Mr. Wendt's criticisms, I must point to a more fundamental flaw in the educational system - the lack of true choice, by which I mean the lack of a voucher system. I think we all agree that that to achieve certain societal goals, the government has the right to collect monies through taxation to fund primary and secondary education. This does not, however, mean that government needs to be the deliverer of the educational service. The monies should follow the children to whatever school the parents feel is best for them. That could be specialized science school, a religous based school, the local public school, etc. The absurdity that the government is the entity best suited to educated our children is dragging our nation down, making us less competitive on the world stage, and is creating a much bleaker future for our children than is necessary. Before those of you who are adamantly opposed to vouchers for whatever reason respond, let me ask you one question - suppose your child is seriously injured and in need of medical attention, do you think you would bring him or her to the government-run hospital or clinic or to a private hospital? Why is that? If you only had government health insurance, shouldn't it be accepted at the private hospital or should you be forced to go to the government clinic? Wat would you want for your child and why should it be different for their education?
Wayne Smith February 04, 2013 at 11:03 AM
I would agree that the lack of choice is a fundamental flaw, a problem that is particulaly acute for kids who happen to live in poor districts. It also hurts gifted or talented kids, who can't necessarily avail themselves of specialized programs that other districts might have that would align with their skills. These problems have been around for decades and instead of dealing with them with a sense of urgency, we get the kind of half-baked approaches described above, which suffer from the flaws noted by Chris Wendt. Milton Friedman once said that there was nothing wrong with our public education system that couldn't be solved with a little competition. But that would mean parents would have a choice (and not just the rich ones...) and public schools would need to respond to challenges like this, as well as the challenge of cost containment, much more aggressively.
Chris Wendt February 04, 2013 at 11:31 AM
Wayne, the definition of "poor district" is subject to wide interpretation. Educational leaders in NY State, especially in Suffolk County, have coined a new phrase: "educational insolvency", meaning the inability of districts to keep up with curriculum mandates and to provide the kind of non-mandated offerings and choices being increasingly demanded by parents for their children. I will be addressing this in an upcoming blog. However, even in districts like Wantagh, given the already high taxes, the adoption of "common core", the "2% Tax Cap", reductions in state aid and changes in the manner in which state aid is allocated, it may not be possible to provide everything parents want and which their children certainly deserve. Why? Because under some definition of your word, "poor", Wantagh is less than wealthy when considering our ability to sustain ever higher taxes to pay for ever higher pension, health care, and salary costs.


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