A stigma is attached to attending Wyandanch Memorial High School, says its principal, Paul Sibblies.
"People think students at Wyandanch perform at a very low level -- that all they know about is gangs and things of that nature."
He hopes that is changing. Thirty of his students are enrolled in the Smart Scholars Early College High School program, a partnership with Farmingdale State College that allows middle- and high-school students to take courses at the college and earn credit. It's paid for by grants from the state department of education.
Classes are held on Saturdays, so students are dually enrolled in high school and college. It was designed, in part, to address disparities in high school graduation rates between minorities and whites. Classes include criminal justice, aeronautics and visual communication studies.
Sibblies and other teachers and principals across Long Island hope the program has a ripple effect. "Students come back and share their experience about what's going on in the college, and then what that does is provoke jealousy in the other students, for them to also want to be a part of it," he said. "They will then work to bring up their grades in the process."
Saturday, the college honored about 150 students in the program at a reception on the Farmingdale campus. A majority of the students, teachers said, are minorities or are the first in their families to attend college. Among them, 120 hail from Long Island, for the most part, Wyandanch, Amityville and Hempstead. Thirty-four are homeless and attend New York City public schools.
Wyandanch parents Lisa Simpson and Stuart Young celebrated with their daughter Shanel Simpson-Young, 14, a freshman at Wyandanch. "I want her to have a better opportunity than I had," Stuart Young said.
Their daughter, who wants to become a veterinarian, said, "I wanted to get a head start." Plus, the additional coursework has resulted in better time management, teachers and students said.
"Everything has to be typed," said Taj Nemley-Edlow, 14, a ninth-grader from Massapequa. "High school is way different from college."
Educators say for students whose parents did not graduate college, the experience can be fraught with separate challenges. Saturdays at Farmingdale -- students begin taking classes as early as eighth grade -- act as a pre-college buffer.
“If you’ve got 20 credits and a 3.5 average, you have a cushion if it’s the first time you’re going away and you get a C,” said Deborah Charles, a science teacher at Edmund W. Miles Middle School in Amityville.
Sibblies said attendance rates this year are up, behavioral problems down. "It's changing the culture of the school," he said.