Set on the edge of Rye, N.Y., an elite Manhattan suburb with a quaint main street lined with upscale shops, the town’s gray stone public high school, Rye High School, is a hotbed of achievers and high expectations.
The school looks like it could be a wing of a New England Ivy League, and the students, Ivy-Leaguers-in-training themselves, turn cool on its head.
“When I watch old TV shows, the cool kids were the people outside in the parking lot, not being involved with anything,” says senior Molly Jordan, who is captain of the tennis team, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper and literary magazine, and president of the Model UN club. “Fonzie would be such an outcast here.”
About half of the roughly 900 Rye High students last year took at least one of the 22 Advanced Placement courses available, and the majority of those pass the exams. About 80 percent of seniors take APs.
But Jordan, who will have completed a total of 10 AP courses by the time she graduates, points out that doesn’t mean Rye is “a slave-driving school.” She says students reach high because they enjoy learning and achieving at the highest level. And because the classes are fun, she insists.
At the beginning of the school year, Jordan says, students line up to beg guidance counselors to squeeze extra classes into their schedules, sometimes at the expense of the students’ lunch periods.
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The teachers rave about the students’ intrinsic motivation. “The common denominator there is they want to challenge themselves,” says Jaime Zung, who teaches AP Environmental Science and has been with the school since 1994.
And teachers like Zung inspire the students to work harder, according to Jordan. “There’s great teachers at every level, but you’re guaranteed to have an amazing schedule if you take a lot of APs,” she says, adding that the mutual respect that exists between faculty and students makes the teachers seem more like college professors. “It just makes the classes that much better and easier to learn in when you like the teachers.”
Student motivation and faculty passion are two keys to Rye High School’s success in all subjects, and specifically in math and science. The school placed 34th overall and eighth out of open enrollment schools—those that don’t require an application—in U.S.News & World Report’s new ranking of Best High Schools for Math and Science.
The combination of mutual student-teacher respect, ultra-involved parents, and effective school leadership creates an open environment where faculty and staff collaborate to encourage student growth. Teachers will help any student who comes by any day, even during the teacher’s lunch, and even if the student isn’t in the particular teacher’s class.
These conversations can sometimes go beyond math, science, and writing, to reach the student on a personal level. “Sometimes you get kids who you don’t even know,” says Zung. “They come in, say, ‘Hey, what do you have in here?’ and it ends up they’re talking about their dad or something.”
Zung says the open culture means he and his colleagues can make learning fun and have fun themselves. He often infuses new ideas into his environmental science classes that go beyond the established curriculum, such as developing hydroponic plant systems and hatching feral quails.
With these projects, Zung gets students to think critically about life while teaching the course material in a memorable way. For example, he says, it’s easy to say that pesticides are bad, but Zung wants the students to understand that farmers use them for a reason, so he lets the students raise their own plants.
“The kids, of course, fall in love with these plants, and then there’s a bug on their plant,” he says. “They say, ‘Oh my god! What do I do? My plant! My plant is sick! We’ve got to spray it with something!”
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This philosophy of going beyond is what keeps the students enthusiastic. “You get to learn why things happen, not just that they happen,” says senior Devon DiPalma, who will have taken a total of nine AP class when he graduates.
The desire to learn and achieve is not isolated to a few, DiPalma adds. “You want to do well because other people are doing well in the class, so you’re like, ‘Well, I can do that, too,’” he says. “So that pushes everyone forward, and everyone is motivated.”
Freshmen see the success of outgoing seniors and want to one-up them as well. “The bar keeps being raised year after year,” says Principal Patricia Taylor, who has been at Rye for 10 years as vice principal for guidance and is in her first year as principal
AP classes aren’t just reserved for the top students. Zung remembers a pair of students in a low-level chemistry class who he encouraged to take a more advanced science class the next year. They did. Finally, the year after that, the two were in AP Environmental Science, which Zung calls the “everyman’s AP class.”
He remembers one of the students struggling and telling him, “I’m here because of you. Because you put me in here.” Zung says he insisted the student was in the AP class because he could do the work. “And he got like a 4 [out of 5] on the exam in the end,” Zung recalls. “They learn that they can do it.”
A few students even go a step further, spending three years of their high school career in a science research program affiliated with the University of Albany—SUNY.
Students select their topics sophomore year and, by senior year, they each partner with a professional to perform a research project. For example, senior Ben Lee is studying the effect of insect repellent on ticks, comparing botanical formulas with DEET. His mentor is a medical entomologist at Fordham University’s field biological research center.
Lee says he feels like he is doing undergraduate research, not just a high school class. The program takes up a lot of out-of-school time, but Lee—who wakes up before 5 a.m. to row on the crew team—says it’s worth it because he gets to take ownership of his own project.
AP goes into the “why” of different topics, Lee adds, but the science research course delves into the “how.” “It’s taking that one extra step into the field,” he says.
Rye is a school where achievement is cool, and not just in math and sciences. AP courses in English, history, economics, art, and foreign language are also popular. The school’s theater, music, and athletic programs are also a huge priority for students.
“Our kids work hard, and their activities encourage them to play hard,” says Principal Taylor, adding that students “are very well rounded, and that is proven in the college acceptances.”
Taylor says many graduates are enrolled in highly competitive colleges, including U.S. News top rated schools such as Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, and Columbia University. It’s this well-roundedness and rigor, Taylor says, that makes Rye the kind of school that gives parents a reason to move into town.
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