Where the schooling on Long Island is good, it is often very good. If the region were a state, it would, by many measures, lead the nation in education. Sometimes, though, that truth masks the fact that there are districts that aren't giving students the training they need, particularly to prepare for tough jobs in engineering or technology. That's why the news that Long Island's first regional high school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will open in the fall is such a breakthrough.
Called the Doshi STEM Program, it will operate under the auspices of the Nassau BOCES in a Syosset building that already houses a center for the performing arts. It will accept 50 students for the next school year, then 50 more each of the next three years, until it has an enrollment of 200 students in grades 9-12. Students will spend half their day at this new school, and take the rest of their classes, and extracurriculars, at their home schools.
Enrollment will be open to all Long Island students, and organizers believe partnerships with Brookhaven National Lab and other area research centers will provide opportunities unavailable at many local high schools.
Five districts have expressed interest, including Hicksville, Uniondale and Westbury, and officials expect more to come on board. Nassau BOCES superintendent Thomas Rogers sees the new school as an opportunity to provide a higher level of education to students who need it, and as a way to show the idea can work, and lead to similar projects elsewhere.
A look at how this school came into being shows the difficulty of starting public ventures outside the mainstream of standard schools run by districts. It also sets a blueprint for getting around, or working within them.
Entrepreneurs Leena and Nitin Doshi, who operate a chain of radiological centers and live in Hicksville, have committed $1 million to this project. Through their AU Foundation, they began funding after-school enrichment programs in Queens in 1999. That effort continues, but over the last few years the two began to feel they needed to make a difference closer to home.
But their first attempt to open a 450-student charter high school at SUNY Old Westbury, supported by college president Calvin O. Butts III, ran into opposition. Local districts argued that the school would drain money from budgets as the districts were forced to pay tuition for their students to attend. That's always the first point of contention raised when any innovation that blurs the sovereignty of a district is proposed, and the issue is especially used to block charter schools.
Those involved in the new effort say this is a more palatable approach because BOCES will run it, the school is only half-day, the tuition cost to districts is only $7,400 per student (as opposed to $12,500 for many BOCES programs) and the private money is there.
This type of school won't solve the woes of the worst-performing schools on the Island, or give middling schools the kinds of STEM programs the top districts use. What these regional schools can do is provide lifelines to the students who have the desire and ability to soar, but lack the opportunities.
The overall success of the schools of Long Island can blind us to the needs of students in mediocre ones. The enormous challenges faced by failing schools in struggling communities can sap the will to improve.
But small, innovative steps, like this new STEM school, can help the students who need and deserve help. And perhaps, starting with such small steps, great journeys may be undertaken and completed.