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'Specialized' Schools Are New York Specialty

New York City is not only home to the nation's most diverse population, its public school system also has the largest variety of so-called "specialized" schools. These academies concentrate on everything from science and the performing arts to social history and the city itself. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

One of the most illustrious of these schools, the Stuyvesant High School in downtown Manhattan, was founded over a century ago as a manual trade school for boys. "Stuy," as it is known locally, is world famous for a science, technology and mathematics curriculum that has produced more than its share of Nobel Laureates, mathematics Field Medalists and other world class thinkers.

Its 3000 or so students can choose from 55 college-level "advanced placement" courses, including such non-scientific offerings as Gothic literature, architecture, and, government, a favorite subject of graduating senior Eva Sadej. "Science is very important to America, but laboratory science can't really act alone," she says. "Government is actually going out there and making science reachable to other people."

Sadej is planning to go to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year. It will further an arc of achievement that began for her and all other Stuyvesant students with a fiercely difficult competitive examination. But, according to Principal Stanley Teitel, life for students at "Stuy" doesn't get much easier once they're admitted.

"I joke with the students that there are three things one can have at Stuyvesant: a high grade point average, a good night's sleep, or a social life." Teitel then tells them to "pick whatever two [of those] you like, because there isn't enough time in the day for you to have all three of them."

Not that there isn't any fun at "Stuy." The school does offer many extra-curricular activities, including chess clubs, sports and musical groups.

Uptown, at the High School of Computers and Technology in the Bronx, enterprising students have rigged the classroom bells to sound a "cuckoo" alarm. Work and play go together here, says robotics teacher Stan Bellis, who is overseeing a student-led team project to build a go-kart.

"The students like working with their hands. They like thinking things out," he says. "They have ideas and they come up with solutions and then they try it out."

Bellis adds that all the students love coming to school. "They could stay here 24 hours a day if I let them."

In addition to the required academic subjects, students at the High School of Computers and Technology are taught all aspects of computer maintenance and repair and graduate with Microsoft certifications that can land them high-paying entry level jobs. But Principal Bruce Abramowitz stresses that the school is not the sort of vocational school that once trained students for low-level factory and manufacturing jobs, where academic skills were unimportant or irrelevant.

"Let's face it," says Abramowitz, "in this day and age in the computer industry… the kids… have to be highly trained in technical [skills] and very adept in academic areas."

Abramowitz likes to tell people that today's cars have more computer-controlled components on them than the Apollo spacecrafts that went to the moon. He confidently predicts that "of the kids we have graduating this year, I bet none of them wind up [working] in a fast food restaurant flipping burgers."

At a dance class at the Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts in Queens, New York, many of the students are flipping themselves, as they rehearse an acrobatic bit of choreography. "Sinatra" offers specializations in dance, fine art, drama, and both instrumental and vocal music.

Students get three 45-minute periods of instruction in their chosen art form every day. But they must also take a full load of required academic subjects.. The challenge is integrating those subjects with the students' chosen art forms.

"We're talking about a real in-depth understanding of the history of their particular art form," says Principal Donna Finn, "as well as its cultural significance, the criticism, and the ability for students to be able to be articulate about their art. So they're supporting their literacy skills in every aspect of their education here at Frank Sinatra." She pauses for a moment, then adds with a broad smile "I wish I had this school when I was in high school!"

The combination of academics and art instruction has worked well for graduating senior Richard Quatrano, a percussionist. "I get to not only excel academically and get challenged on a daily basis, but I get to do what I love every day." Quatrano says that music will always be his passion. "But I've also learned to communicate. I've learned to analyze. And if that doesn't make me a well-rounded person ready to tackle anything, I don't know what will!"

For her part, Bulgaria-born Liana Mitova is delighted to be in a school where she can take all the painting and sculpture classes that were lacking in her city school curriculum back home. "I wouldn't be the same person without this opportunity," says Mitova, "and to do it in New York City, the cultural capital of the world, is truly amazing!"

New York City itself is the focus of one of the city's specialized schools, while others are devoted to social history, public health, writing, and the study of the future