A high school that cares, and cares
Elmhurst, Queens, N.Y.
Joseph Weintraub has been at Newtown High School since 1952, first as a teacher, then assitant principal, and for nearly a decade as principal. It's his high school -- no doubt about that.
It's clean; it's orderly; it's full of students, and except for the fire drill there were none in the halls during class periods.
"What happened here in the '60s?" was almost the first question from the visiting journalist. "Nothing, just like it is today," was the principal's ready response. In case I was a doubting Thomas, his secretary called out from the next room to confirm that statement.
Newtown High serves one geographically small area in the huge New York City public school system. Newton is one of 24 high schools in the Borough of Queens; one of 125 scattered throught New York City.
Except for 100 students picked each year for the college-preparatory pre-engineering program, all the students live in easy commuting distance of the school.
This year there are 45 percent Hispanics, 16 percent Oriental, 12 percent black, and 27 percent ethnic whites. There are so many students that the school runs two daily shifts.
Also, because of the great number of students who come with very limited ability to speak, read, or write English, there is a strong bilingual program. This year, too, there are 70 ethnic Chinese "boat" people who are not only being aided to learn English by bilingual (Mandarin/English) teachers, but who are given language training in their native language as well.
"I give them two years," Joseph Weintraub states. "Two years to learn English enough so that we don't have to teach them any longer in their native language." He sees the job of his city high school getting its students, whatever their backgrounds, into the mainstream of US life -- into a job or further education or both.
Mr. Weintraub is a teaching principal -- but not, like his Brooklyn counterpart at Edward R. Murrow High School, a teacher in his own high school. Mr. Weintraub teaches economics in the evenings at a nearby community college.
But I didn't go to Newtown High to talk with the principal about the bilingual and college-prep curriculums; I went to talk about their cooperative education programs, which has one set of students on a job for a week and a matching set in school. Then the following week those on the job return to high school and the scholars go out on the job.
Newtown was the first New York City high school to offer cooperative education and has continued the program for more than 60 years. Its coordinator , a very successful businesswoman prior to coming to Newtown, is Viola Achnitz.
She is very definite about what makes a coop ed program work -- "good students." She continues, "They are the key. I tell you, if I were just to send out a notice or sell the program over the loudspeaker, I might get just any kind of student.
"But I don't do that. I look at the records of all the students in the 10th grade, noting those who aren't doing well enough to be in the college prep classes, but who are steady workers getting good grades."
Viola Achnits meets them and if satisfied they are the right quality for this dual program, she offers it to them.
As we talked, she told of the class she teaches. She asks those on the job to share with the others some of their problems. Then as one boy tells how he "messed up and was bawled out," the group talks together about what he should do now.
Should he talk to his supervisor? Should he admit that he doesn't understand one of the tasks well enough and might foul it up again? Who should he get his help from?
How should the students dress? What should they do about getting a job after they complete the program? What if they don't want to work for the firm that's hired them as a co-op?
And so on. Miss Achnitz has been there, and she makes sure that her students don't miss a thing. She instructs them to keep a notebook just for observations. And she primes them -- what were people wearing; when given several tasks, which ones were carried out first; who has access to the front office; and so on.
Then there is the matter of keeping up with classes which are interrupted all year long, and which meet every other week. Again, this thoughtful and conscientious teacher makes sure her students learn to study and that they learn not to get behind.
The jobs, almost entirely, are with major firms in Manhattan. I asked why. Her answer was a measure of why Newtown has been in the co-op ed business for more than a half century.
"We don't want the youngsters just filling a spot for a business; or doing chores. We want the firm to have a spot that two co-ops can fill, as well as spots for them to move up to at the end of their co-op term. We're not talking about students being 'used' as 'cheap' labor."
I asked if most of the students stayed on their jobs after graduation from high school, working their way up the job ladder.
"No," she smiled, "they don't. You see, for most of them this is a way to go on to college."
And then she told of case after case of students doing so well for an employer (e.g., Irving Trust, Morgan Guaranty Trust) that the employer provides tuition (and sometimes time off) for them to take college classes while they hold down their job.
She encourages graduates of Newtown to come back and visit, brings them into the classes, and gets them to tell the present students what has unfolded for them because they were able to satisfy their employers.
When I asked if any students got fired or quit, Miss Achnitz was modest -- she really did not want to boast -- but she had almost none in more than 10 years. Her explanation, "You see, they are all good students."
But one could tell there was more than quality among these work-oriented students, there is a staff who cares -- who care about dress, and language, and adapting to US customs, and being punctual, considerate, and thoughtful.
The principal's that way, so is the co-op ed coordinator -- so are the students.