Imagine a bustling, urban public high school whose alumni include Nobel Prize winners, government officials, and world-class writers, musicians, actors, scholars—you name it. And the prestige of going there is hardly a thing of the past.
Fewer than 10 percent of the more than 20,000 eighth and ninth graders taking the annual admission test will score above the cutoff point—and once there, the workload doesn't let up. But sleep deprivation can seem a small price to pay (especially when the tuition is free), considering the range and depth of the high-level classes offered. And when these driven students do graduate, they go on to become—well, just look at their alumni role models.
Now, imagine two such schools, and each one believes—knows—it's superior to the other. Think Harvard vs. Yale, Columbia vs. Cornell, and you've got the basic story line of the friendly rivalry between two of New York City's finest, here listed in alphabetical order, lest a fistfight break out immediately: the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. (This won't help the rivalry: Stuyvesant is No. 31 and Bronx Science No. 58 on the U.S. News Best High Schools list. Bronx Science still lays claim to the larger number of Nobel laureates, however, with distinguished physicists Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg among the school's seven prize winners. Stuyvesant has four.)
Even their addresses speak to an uptown-downtown polarity. Bronx Science is a few subway stops north of Yankee Stadium. Stuyvesant sits near Manhattan's lower tip, not far from ground zero.
Nor would anyone confuse one building for the other. Stuyvesant is a 10-story high-rise with escalators, a swimming pool, and picture windows that overlook the Hudson River. Bronx Science, in an urban area with tree-lined streets, is a sprawling, red-brick low-rise without pool or escalator. It does boast a weather station, however, offers a course in forensic science, and is the only high school in the country to house a Holocaust museum and related curriculum.
So, which school is on top? It depends upon whom you ask.
A win-win. "So, how's it going at the city's second-best high school?" Valerie Reidy, principal of Bronx Science, gently teases Stuyvesant Principal Stanley Teitel. His usual comeback, with a wink: "I don't know! You tell me!"
In reality, they consult each other about school issues regularly and readily praise the other's institution. Reidy, who has been at the helm of Bronx Science for nine years and for 22 years before that taught in and then headed its biology department, says that she has a standard reply when potential students or parents ask which school is better. "I say, 'If these are your two choices, how lucky you are! Both schools will provide you with an excellent education.' " Teitel—who joined Stuyvesant as a chemistry and physics teacher in 1983 and has headed the school since 1999—agrees. "Truth is, there is no 'better.' It's the same," he says.
Or at the very least, more similar than not. After all, the same test—the New York City Specialized Science High Schools Admissions Test—determines who gets into Bronx Science and Stuyvesant (as well as a third prestigious high school for the gifted and talented, Brooklyn Technical).
Among these schools, too, there is one size only: large. About 3,200 students attend Stuyvesant; roughly 2,900 go to Bronx Science. If, as many interviewees suggested, more students have put Stuyvesant at the top of their list rather than Bronx Science in recent years—especially since Stuyvesant moved from Manhattan's East Side into its downtown building in 1992—the qualifying admission test scores for both schools generally run within points of one another.
In fact, the more a visitor tours each building's classrooms (class size at both maxes at 34), peeks in at the labs (whatever specialized equipment you might need, it's there), or observes students pausing to share a joke in front of their lockers or rushing through the corridors en masse to get to the next class, the more similar the schools begin to seem. That impression is only strengthened by interviews with students, parents, teachers, and administrators, whose raves about each school's pluses can start to sound interchangeable: Students are "incredibly bright" and "highly motivated"; the choice of courses is "awesome"; both schools emphasize "creative and critical thinking" and foster "a culture of learning."
Gripes? So much to do and so little time to sleep, goes one refrain. Another has to do with the commute, which for some can take up to an hour each way. (Fortunately, bus and subway rides provide time for homework, catching 40 winks, or hanging out with friends.) The schools are even alike in their diversity, both economically and ethnically (about two thirds of the pupils at each school come from Asian backgrounds; the rest a mix of Caucasian, Hispanic, and black). At both, too, because a fair number of parents are non-English speaking, translators are on call.
Stuyvesant graduate Jonah Peppiatt recalls that on 9/11, at the start of his junior year, students were evacuated from the school. He walked 5 miles to his home on Manhattan's Upper West Side with five friends, each from a different ethnic or religious background. "Here we were, emerging from a terrorist attack based on intolerance, and here was this diverse group coming together," he says.
Location, location, location. Not surprisingly—at least, not to Stuyvesant boosters—downtown Manhattan's urban buzz trumps Bronx Science's quieter setting. Stuyvesant's take: You get what you commute for.
Bronx Science's tart comeback: "We're worth the trip," proudly declares the school bumper sticker.
Then there is the very important subject of lunch. At Stuyvesant, a daily lunch period is required, no matter how loudly students clamor to squeeze in another course instead. Not so at Bronx Science. There, students may ask to substitute an additional academic course for lunch, provided their parents approve. So, when do those students eat? "The joke is, in AP biology, a kid will be dissecting a pig with one hand and eating a sandwich with the other," says Principal Reidy. (It sounds like an urban legend until you speak to a student who has come perilously close to doing just that.)
The lunch issue doesn't mean one school is more laid back than the other. "We have high expectations for ourselves," says Sharmila Ahmed, a Stuyvesant junior.
But they do find time to be teenagers. At both schools, you can spot kids—and staff—having a good time. At Stuyvesant one recent morning, Teitel threw back his tie and showed off his push-ups to the guys in phys ed class. At Bronx Science, senior Katia Lin donned an apron to serve the apple crisp she had baked in her nutritional science class.
Occasionally, it's the parents who stress out. "I've had parents come and tell me, 'My child has a 96 or 97 in a particular class, and how can they do better?' " says Teitel. "Sometimes I have to tell the parents to step back."
The students have already gotten the message, says David Colchamiro, Bronx Science assistant principal. After an assembly at which the winners of Intel's national science competition were announced, for instance, the entrants who had not won lifted the winners onto their shoulders and carried them into the principal's office to celebrate. "It's not, 'If you win, I lose,' " says Reidy. "It's, 'If I win, it's greater, but if you win, it's still great and I can be happy for you.' That's the maturity level we inculcate and want every student to have."