Worlds Apart

The state’s largest public high school has nothing in common with the smallest, right? Spend time inside each—urban or bucolic, immigrant or fourth-generation farm kid—and the common ground might surprise you.

The state’s largest public high school has nothing in common with the smallest, right? Spend time inside each—urban or bucolic, immigrant or fourth-generation farm kid—and the common ground might surprise you.

Osamah Choudhry and Erin Buchanan graduated in June from New Jersey public high schools. Both were number one in their classes and made their families proud when they delivered the valedictory at their graduation ceremonies. Both won academic scholarships to competitive state schools—he for the prestigious dual seven-year BA/MD program at Rutgers-Newark, she for the College of New Jersey, where she will study computer science. And there the similarities in their high school experiences end.

Osamah, the American-born son of Pakistani immigrants, attended Elizabeth High, New Jersey’s largest high school, where he was one of 5,299 students. Erin, whose parents and grandparents also grew up in southern Hunterdon County, spent her four years at the state’s smallest public high school, South Hunterdon Regional, in West Amwell, where last school year 235 students were enrolled in grades nine through twelve. With such a small student body, says principal Donald Woodring, “we don’t have enough of any one group to make a clique.”

When it comes to size, these two schools, 55 miles apart on opposite sides of the state, represent the extremes of public education in New Jersey. Elizabeth High is part of a 26-school district in an old industrial center that is the seat of Union County. It’s in a class of public schools deemed the poorest in the state by the New Jersey Department of Education, and about 90 percent of its funding comes from the state and federal government. Elizabeth’s schools have always educated children of immigrants. Only their countries of origin have changed.

South Hunterdon, which houses 115 seventh- and eighth-graders in the same building, is its own one-school district. It lies just outside Lambertville, an artsy riverside town of about 3,800 people—1,500 fewer than Elizabeth High’s student body. South Hunterdon is surrounded by farms and fields in the southwest corner of rural Hunterdon County, just across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania. By state standards, it’s neither a wealthy nor poor district. Most of its students are children of farmers and blue-collar workers whose families, like Erin Buchanan’s, have lived in the area for generations.

Being extremely big or small has its merits and its pitfalls. It’s hard to sustain school spirit when your athletic teams lose with numbing regularity, as they do at South Hunterdon, where anyone who shows up for practice makes the cut. Michael Weinstein, class of 2005, now a freshman at the University of Delaware, never played football until he joined the varsity team his sophomore year. “And I wasn’t exactly blessed with natural athletic ability,” he admits.

“No one gets cut here,” says assistant principal Michael Godown—himself a graduate of South Hunterdon, class of ’92—even if it means that the Eagles can’t compete with bigger schools.

No such problem at mighty Elizabeth High, where cabinets packed three-deep with trophies earned by the school’s 39 sports teams line the walls of the main office. Trophies cover shelves surrounding seating areas and clutter the tops of file cabinets—and that’s just the overflow from the main trophy cabinets in the gym. Nonetheless, Michael Scarpato, Elizabeth High’s principal for six years until his recent reassignment to Mabel G. Holmes Middle School, laments that school spirit remains low, in large part, he says, because kids just don’t feel connected.

Scarpato, who came to the district in 1970 to teach phys ed, made several changes to make the school feel smaller. He divided the nearly 5,300 students into five “houses,” or schools within the school. Two houses occupy the main building and three are in separate buildings spread out over several city blocks. Ninth-grade students are assigned to a house by lottery or special need and spend the next four years there, seeing students from other houses only during extracurricular events or school functions. Within their houses, the freshmen are assigned to “learning communities” composed of 100 kids who share the same five teachers through their sophomore year. “It’s a way for teachers and students to get to know each other,” Scarpato says, “and it makes it less likely that a student will fall through the cracks.”

It’s impossible to fall through the cracks at South Hunterdon High, which encompasses seven classrooms in one wing of the building; students share the library, cafeteria, gym, two computer labs, a culinary arts room, industrial arts room, music room, and the agricultural science lab with seventh- and eighth-graders. “There is nowhere to hide,” says superintendent Lisa Brady, who left her job as principal of 2,900-student Hunterdon Central High last year to take the helm at South Hunterdon.

Brady considers the school’s size its greatest strength. “It gives kids the opportunity to develop their talents and personalities,” she says. She admits that small enrollment can mean weak sports teams and low participation in other programs, “but what is the role of high school?” she asks. “Isn’t it also to explore who you are and what your talents are? Here everybody who wants to be in the school play gets to be in the school play. Even if you kind of stink, we find a place to put you. And why not? This isn’t Broadway. There’s plenty of time later in life to get rejected.”

That coziness, though, can get a little stifling. As Brady says, “The downside of everybody knowing everybody is that everybody knows everybody—and their family.”

“You have to get along with everyone, because you see them all the time,” says John Narducci, who graduated in June. “And you can’t date anyone without everyone knowing about it.”

South Hunterdon’s tiny enrollment tends to limit its curriculum. Some classes have as few as four students, although sometimes it’s hard to get that many; when all else fails, school administrators will help a sole student take an online course or independent study. “There isn’t a lot of choice here,” says recent grad Amanda Muscatell, now a freshman majoring in fashion merchandising at Marymount University. “We don’t have a lot of electives.”

Elizabeth High students have a variety of academic and vocational options—black, Latino, and women’s studies; supermarket careers; commercial foods; nursing; and harp, guitar, and piano lessons—as well as a rainbow of foreign languages, including Portuguese and Mandarin. There’s a state-of-the-art TV studio, a graphic-design and printing shop, and a child development center. Classes are taught by a faculty of 520. “There is a wealth of different personalities available to students,” Scarpato says. “No one person can reach every child, but chances are every child can be reached by one of those 500 teachers.”

The sheer size of Elizabeth High can overwhelm even the teachers. As he leads a tour in May, media specialist George Mikros—he was senior class president for the class of 1985—can name only a smattering of the teachers he passes in the halls or observes in classrooms. “There are a lot of teachers here,” he says.

At South Hunterdon, the teachers not only all know each other but socialize regularly. Last May, more than 30 of the school’s 47 teachers attended a Trenton Thunder baseball game. In the faculty dining room, where teachers hang their coffee mugs on pegs, everyone knows whose mug is whose.

Scarpato and Brady don’t know each other, but they both say ideal enrollment for their schools would be 400 to 500 students. Yet enrollment at Elizabeth keeps on climbing. “With smaller schools, people would be able to build stronger relationships,” Scarpato says. “Teachers would really get to know kids and their dreams.”

Each of Elizabeth High’s five houses contains its own administration and offices, cafeteria, library, and gym. The main building, which houses the principal’s office and two houses, has a reference library, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a one-acre gym, the largest of any high school’s in the state.

On any given school day at Elizabeth High, noise and bustle dominate. Outside, Latin music blares from open car windows, jackhammers rattle at construction sites, and ambulance sirens pierce the air around Trinitas Hospital, a block away. Inside, perpetual activity marks every classroom, hallway, cafeteria, and library. Students arrive at school each morning according to a staggered starting schedule to accommodate everyone. When classes change, you either stand with your back pressed against the wall or get carried off by the human tide. If South Hunterdon is too small to have cliques, Elizabeth High is too big. “There’s no way any one person can be most popular, because there are so many of us,” says Stefani Stefano, class of 2006, whose family moved to Elizabeth from Brazil seven years ago. “There are so many students, we all blend in at the end,” says Leydis Leyva, who immigrated from Cuba in 2001 without knowing a word of English and graduated in June in the top 1 percent of her class.

Peace and quiet reigns inside and out at South Hunterdon. Between periods, the hall traffic is light. Outside, cars pass infrequently; you can actually hear bees buzzing. The 52 high school and middle school teachers perform hall duty on a revolving basis. As students pass on their way to the restroom or their lockers, teachers address them all by first name. Familiarity is the security system here. Students wear no ID cards. There’s no need to, Woodring says, when everyone knows everyone, although this school year the faculty will carry them for the first time. This fall the South Hunterdon school district will ask voters whether they’re willing to spend $20 million to renovate and expand the rundown building, which was built in 1959. Plans call for art and science classrooms, an auditorium, and a middle school gym.

Students and staff at Elizabeth High carry color-coded ID cards. Uniformed security guards operate metal detectors inside the main entrance. Television monitors in the main office are linked to surveillance cameras. The school employs 33 full-time uniformed security guards as hall monitors and another 6 off-duty city police officers to patrol the grounds. It all makes for a school with fewer violent incidents per student than most of the state’s other urban schools—and fewer than many schools in suburban and rural school districts, including South Hunterdon.

It’s hard to ignore the presence of uniforms at Elizabeth High. Last year, 155 students were enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, or ROTC—an elective course, like art—and military recruiters visit the school regularly. During lunch one warm sunny day last spring, a young Navy recruiter takes his position next to the doors leading from the cafeteria into the courtyard of the main building. In crisp white uniform and with cap in hand, he stands out from the jumble of students—girls in camisoles and flip-flops, boys with droopy pants, black, white, and brown kids with purple and green hair. Most don’t notice him as they jostle past to buy French fries and Gatorade from the snack cart set up near the courtyard doors. But now and again someone stops to talk to the recruiter. For many kids, Scarpato says, the military is an attractive option. A little more than half of Elizabeth’s graduating class will attend college, and many others will go straight into the workforce.

South Hunterdon has no ROTC program, but it does have a chapter of Future Farmers of America, one of the state’s few high school agricultural-science programs. Students study floriculture, landscaping, and aquaculture, and they make corsages for the prom and graduation and raise tilapia in a 200-gallon tank for the culinary arts class to cook up.

Apart from their sizes, the most obvious difference between Elizabeth and South Hunterdon high schools is in their ethnic makeups. At Elizabeth, students come from 57 countries and speak 34 native languages. At home, more than half the students’ families speak Spanish as their first language. The majority of students belong to ethnic minorities. “Being here helps eliminate ignorance,” says recent grad Jennifer Tang. The daughter of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, she’s now studying chemical engineering at MIT. “I’ve learned a lot from my friends from other cultures,” she says.

At South Hunterdon, minority students stand out precisely because there are so few. There is one African-American family, one Jamaican family, and, says Michael Weinstein, “five Jewish kids—me and my brother and another family.”

A classmate, Jaclyn Griffiths, interrupts. “No,” she corrects, “the other family is only half-Jewish.”

“See?” says fellow graduate Sara Torkelson. “We even know who’s half-Jewish and who’s all Jewish.” Jaclyn says one reason she chose Montclair State was because it has an ethnically diverse student population. Osamah Choudhry says he chose Rutgers-Newark over Columbia for the same reason.

Perhaps no occasion reveals the differences between Elizabeth and South Hunterdon high schools quite like their annual proms. South Hunterdon’s prom is open to all students in grades nine through twelve—otherwise they wouldn’t have enough for a party. On the last Friday of May, about 130 South Hunterdon students cross the Delaware to Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, where they fit comfortably into the ballroom of the Washington Crossing Inn. It’s business as usual in other parts of the restaurant, except that diners occasionally look up to see young women in sleek gowns and princess dresses and young men in traditional tuxedos. The girls wear their hair in pretty updos and curls. Most of the kids have driven themselves to the inn, although a few arrive by the requisite limo. Parents, grandparents, and siblings mingle with students in the courtyard, chatting and taking pictures before the students wave goodbye and disappear inside.

In the ballroom, the kids pour soda into wineglasses and sit at round tables of ten. The school has hired Tom Koehler, a Pennsylvania police officer, to sit outside the ballroom door and make sure no one leaves early (no one does) and that no trouble breaks out (it doesn’t).

On the same evening in May, Elizabeth High holds its prom at the palatial Westmount Country Club in West Paterson, where more than 1,300 seniors take over the entire facility, as they’ve done every year for the past twenty years. The club has 150 people working the prom that night, not including the kitchen staff. Many are security officers. The school has brought 6 of its own guards, 2 city police officers, and dozens of teachers and administrators.

The atmosphere is more disco than school dance. The handful of traditional outfits are overshadowed by costumes that rival the fashion parade at the Oscars. Boys arrive in long Edwardian-style frock coats in brilliant colors, with matching top hats and sunglasses. Girls wear gowns of every description—except, perhaps, demure. There are dresses with no midriff, low-cut backs, and slits from ankle to hip. Hair is sculpted into fantastic forms that must have taken hours to create. Kids arrive in stretch limos and rented luxury cars. “Some kids save up for this prom for four years,” Scarpato says. Sometimes it takes them until the last minute to get the money together, which is why the school allows students to buy the $125-per-couple tickets as late as the day of the prom.

The students sing along to the rap music blaring from the sound system, the heat generated by hundreds of gyrating bodies creating a 20-degree temperature difference between the dance floor and the doorway.

South Hunterdon students elect their prom king and queen, but at Elizabeth they’re chosen by lottery. Students write their own names on slips of paper—pink for girls, blue for boys—and drop them into one of two boxes as they arrive at the prom. Scarpato then draws the names at random near the end of the evening. It’s the only fair way, he says, in a school so big it’s impossible to know most people. “That way,” he says, “everyone gets a chance.”

The student whose name is pulled from the king box is nowhere to be found, so it’s the second draw who gets to be king: Walter, a tall, thin white student. Scarpato reaches into the pink box and pulls out the name of the queen: Amber, a short black girl with a large smile. Then Walter and Amber, who appear to be meeting for the first time, dance together, a little awkwardly, in the center of the dance floor, where school administrators have somehow pried an opening.

Once the prom ends, it takes a few hours to get the 1,306 kids out of the country club and into their rides. Scarpato waits until the last student leaves, as he always does, often into the early morning. “Every time we do this, it amazes me,” he says.

Writer Olga Wickerhauser lives in Delaware Township.

Article from September,  2005 Issue


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