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60° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Students at Doshi STEM school deserve better

Jennifer Galasso, left, a teacher at Nassau BOCES'

Jennifer Galasso, left, a teacher at Nassau BOCES' Doshi STEM School in Syosset, works with students Lauryn Lee, rear, and Meghna Girdhar, right, as they take part in a DNA fingerprinting exercise on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Credit: Heather Walsh

Charlie Agriogianis was sad when he heard the news.

Amanda Ford was heartbroken.

And when Alexis Murry learned that the STEM high school run by Nassau BOCES would cease operations in June, she was upset.

“To find out it was closing was really disappointing,” says Murry, a junior from Malverne. “It’s a special program ... It’s a whole different environment there.”

The kids at the Doshi STEM Institute in Syosset found out May 5 that rocky finances were forcing BOCES to shutter the struggling science and technology school.

The initial idea was sound: Create a high-quality STEM program to which school districts lacking the means to offer their own could send their high-tech students. When the plan was announced three years ago, kids like Charlie, Amanda and Alexis were elated.

“It was really exciting,” Murry says. “They told me the coursework would actually be rigorous ... And to be with other people who do the same things I wanted to do.”

Then her voice trails off, which is pretty much what happened to the school. A promised $1 million donation over four years from Leena Doshi, the school’s namesake, was pulled after one year with only $150,000 given — the danger of relying on donors instead of systemic support. Tuition paid by districts rose from $7,400 to $13,195 per student, not easy in the tax-cap era. An uncertain future made parents and students uneasy. And some districts don’t send students as a matter of philosophy. Enrollment is 46 kids; 125 is needed to be viable.

“It’s a shame we were not able to realize this,” says BOCES associate superintendent Lydia Begley.

No one feels that more acutely than the Doshi kids and parents.

The school matched their expectations — challenging classes, working with scientists from Cold Spring Harbor and Brookhaven National labs, friendships with like-minded peers from other districts, lots of interesting experiences.

Like the trip to a Superfund site in Glen Cove to collect bug and plant samples, extract DNA and test it for toxins. And the chance, as 16-year-old Malverne sophomore Agriogianis puts it, to devise your own solutions to engineering problems. And the “really hard-core attention” from teachers, says Ford, 17, a junior from Uniondale.

The school has value beyond all that in addressing the inequities in education and opportunity.

“This helped kids from smaller, less wealthy, minority districts, the same ones that can’t afford their own programs,” says Jeanne D’Esposito, Charlie’s mom and one of a core of Doshi parents who fought to keep the school going.

Malverne, which sends 16 students to Doshi, is working with BOCES on whether it might somehow take in the engineering program. Uniondale, with 15 students at Doshi, is looking to do something as well. But the BOCES dream is pretty much dead.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten him into it,” D’Esposito says. She glances at Charlie, both sitting at their kitchen table. She’s an attorney, she gets things done. And now tears roll down her cheeks.

“I wanted to give these kids an opportunity,” she says. “For me, it’s a feeling I let him down.”

She didn’t, we all did. We can do this, but refuse to reach beyond our grasp. Combine a group of neighboring districts, convert the high schools — one for STEM, one for performing arts, one for business, a couple traditional high schools, whatever works — and let students pick the one that suits them. Similar concepts work elsewhere. The Doshi kids love the idea. They see the promise and the payoff, but not the impossible politics of education on Long Island.

So we shut doors in their faces, and leave others forever closed.

Agriogianis created an educational video game about invasive species — in eighth grade.

That’s something to nurture, not to stunt.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.