Hillcrest High honored for improvement

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Hillcrest High School was one of six schools nationwide to receive the prestigious National School Change Award last Thursday. The award recognizes schools that have shown significant improvement within a short period of time.

“Students have made dramatic improvements in not only academic areas but in attendance and overall behavior and attitudes towards school,” Hillcrest Principal Stephen Duch said in an interview. “As a result, on all state and city benchmarks, Hillcrest has met or exceeded expected outcomes.”

In October, Hillcrest, located at 160-05 Highland Ave. in Jamaica Estates, was rated the most crime-ridden high school in the city by the Police Department. School officials objected to the rating, insisting that the school is a safe school that only appeared at the top of the crime list because it reports every incident, no matter how small.

“People in academic circles have been aware of the progress that Hillcrest has been making for a while,” said Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who spoke at the school’s graduation ceremony this year. “Unfortunat­ely, it was the other story about the mischief in the school that caught everyone’s attention.”

Hillcrest is the first New York City school ever to receive a National School Change Award since the national competition was established four years ago by the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, Duch said.

The competition is open to public and private elementary, middle and high schools. This year there were 240 applicants, Duch said. Winning schools received $5,000 grants to encourage continued excellence.

One indication of Hillcrest’s improvement is the increase in the percentage of students receiving Regents diplomas, Duch said. Six years ago, 10 percent of students received Regents diplomas. This year 41 percent received the specially endorsed diplomas, which are given to students only if they pass a certain number of Regents-level classes.

In addition, attendance has improved significantly, and the number of students taking advanced placement and college level classes taught by professors from Queensborough Community College has tripled, Duch said.

    “They’ve improved dramatically, and we’re happy and proud that they’re getting the recognition for excellence, innovation and improvement that they so rightly deserve,” said Gennaro.

Duch attributed the school’s improvement to a restructuring of the school community from one large body consisting of 3,000 students to a sub-divided student body consisting of six smaller learning communities.

Since the school was restructured six years ago, every student at Hillcrest chooses to be in one out of six specialized programs: pre-med, health, law and community action, pre-teaching, theater or entrepreneurship.

“Coming into a building with 3,000 kids can be overwhelming,” Duch said. “By having smaller learning communities, kids are not just numbers, they’re actually people.”

Hillcrest is zoned for students living in Briarwood, Jamaica Hills and Forest Hills and also accepts students throughout the city who apply for the pre-med, health and theater programs, Duch said. The school is 45 percent black, 28 percent Asian, 23 percent Hispanic and 6 percent white.

Many students in the school’s health program graduate with emergency medical technician state certifications and work as EMTs or medical office assistants while attending college, Duch said.

Applying for the National School Change Award was a reflective process that forced teachers and administrators to look at the school’s growth over the past five years, Duch said.

“The whole format and process of the application made you look at data and the philosophy of the school,” the principal said.

In the next few years, Hillcrest will be a research site for Fordham University graduate students and staff, who will look into how the school’s success can be replicated at other educational institutions.

The other winners of this year’s National School Change Awards include elementary schools in Rochester, N.Y., Hialeah, Fla., and Olathe, Kan. and a high school in Georgetown, Del.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by email at, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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