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History As a Foundation for Study
At specialized high school, in-depth learning and a college partnership

Although summer’s last gasp—Labor Day—was still ahead of them, the teachers and staff at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College buzzed with excitement about the coming year. There were new possibilities to be shaped by the incoming freshman class, and expanding opportunities to be defined by upperclassmen.

Only in its fifth year, the school has climbed to a prominent position among the city’s seven specialized high schools, already drawing comparisons to Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and its borough neighbor Bronx Science. Standing in the shadows of Lehman College, the teachers at the High School of American Studies are dedicated to ensuring that their students are ready to both meet the demands of higher education and become active participants in society.

At the core of the school is an indepth history requirement that spreads out the normal one year of American history over three years. Global history courses are also taken simultaneously. In their first year, students begin with Advanced Placement U.S. history and move forward chronologically with each semester. As early as their junior year, students are allowed to enroll in elective courses at the college campus across the street. In addition, students are also given full access to Lehman College’s facilities, from the research library to the cafeteria to the tennis courts.

Although history remains the foundation, Principal Alessandro Weiss explained that the school takes an interdisciplinary approach to the other subjects offered, and students are encouraged to approach their work in an individualized manner.

“We’re the only specialized high school in the city that focuses on the humanities, and that seems to sometimes be a forgotten angle. There are more smart people in the world than just scientists,” he said. “The academic spirit here promotes free thinking and an entrepreneurial spirit. We place a lot of value on the experience of learning itself.”

While the school’s approach allows for a different style of learning, Weiss also pointed to the small class size that allows for stronger bonds to form between teachers and students.With the student body capped at 400, class sizes remain low, between 20 and 25 students, which facilitates the exchange of ideas between students.

“It’s important to care for our students as a community,”Weiss said.

Through its connection with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a resource center that promotes the study of history, the school also provides a wide variety of supplements to the students’ normal lessons. Each year there are overnight fieldtrips to Sturbridge Village, Philadelphia, West Point and Washington D.C. to coincide with studies. Arnie Mansdorf, lead teacher of the social studies department, has been with the school since its inception and said that the city is also used as a classroom.

“We take trips to Ellis Island, and go on other walking tours in specific neighborhoods,” he said. “We also take in some plays in Manhattan.” Mansdorf, who teaches 19th century history, said that the rigorous course work allows them to cover minute details that accentuate learning.

“I love F.D.R. And normally I would only get a day to cover his accomplishments,” he explained. “But here, I go over his presidency for three weeks.We listen to his inaugural address, visit the Roosevelt Museum in Hyde Park, and go through other primary documents to get a real perspective on what the Depression was like for people.”

Even though Mansdorf holds Roosevelt and his policies in high regard, he covers critics of the New Deal as well. “This is not a survey course,” he said. “It’s the little facts that help students grasp the big message.”

Evan Okin, who is entering his senior year, said that it was Mansdorf ’s approach that helped instill a new fascination with history.

“When I first came here, I wasn’t that interested in history,” he said. “But now I’m enrolled in the senior’s honor thesis course, and think that I might major in history next year in college.”

In addition to his regular high school classes, Okin is also enrolled in an elective class at Lehman College, “Jazz Evolution.” “This is not like any other school,” he said. “We learn how important it is to be knowledgeable about history and how the past still affects what happens today.”

Okin’s mother, Lynn, who sat as chair of the Leadership Team for two years, says parents are encouraged to become an active part of the school. Once a month parents meet with the principal and teachers to discuss the progress of the curriculum and to find better ways to expand students’ experiences.

“The administration is open and willing to listen to the parents. It’s empowering to know that our opinions will be heard and considered. The education here is truly a collaborative effort,” she said. “It’s very exciting to be a part of the growth process at a school that is still adding new things to its curriculum.”

Lynn Okin has already enrolled Evan’s younger brother, Zach, as a freshman this year. “There’s not just a great vision here,” she said. “But there is also camaraderie between the students; they really get a chance to bond.”

-- Noah Fowle



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