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New York City
December 2002

John Lee, Superintendent of Queens High Schools
By Adam B. Kushner

Worlds are coming together in Queens high schools under Superintendent John Lee’s watch.

As in many other of districts of the New York public school system, there is an intense intermingling of cultures. Lee’s 75,000 students—his is the largest high school district in New York and is larger than the entire public school system in Boston—hail from New York as well as India, Korea, China and other nations. In fact, 12 percent of his students every year are English language learners, and there are several bilingual programs to accommodate them.

“It brings a great richness to our student population and we celebrate that,” he said in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, there are challenges that accompany that: one, preparing these students to be part of society, and then two, to be able to meet all of the standards and graduation requirements.”

There is even an entire Newcomers High School, which was founded in the early 1990’s to serve newly-arrived immigrant students. For younger students in ninth and tenth grade, it’s a language-intensive transitional school to prepare them for the New York school system. It’s the sort of thing Lee understands, as a first-generation American whose family came from China.

But Lee is also looking at the melting pot from an educational point of view. He is bringing new collaborations to his traditional curricula. Lee has implemented all sorts of new programs in his district to teach business, the arts, law enforcement, and information technology.

He helped bring Virtual Enterprise to Queens from Europe in 1997. The program, in which as many as 80 students simulate an actual business, runs in nine schools. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to take their learning and really apply it as they learn about the real world,” Lee said.

“We transformed classrooms into what look like offices. Students create a business and they have to develop a business plan. You have a CEO, you have a personnel department, a sales department, marketing, public relations. They participate in local, national, and international competitions,” he said, explaining that many of his students go to Europe to compete. His counselors and teachers also encourage troubled students to enroll, many of whom excel in the program.

This merging of the business and academic worlds is representative of what Lee sees as educational innovation, but business isn’t the only nontraditional discipline Lee has brought into his high school classrooms.

With the moral and financial support of Tony Bennett, he opened the Sinatra School of the Arts just over a year ago. “It’s a school that has 5 art studios,” Lee explained. “We have dance, we have drama, we have vocal music, orchestral music, and fine arts. Of course, Tony Bennett is really the driving force behind the creation of this school and is a staunch partner. In a short time, the school has gotten quite a number of accolades.”

To expose students to the arts, Bennett helps bring in popular guest artists and speakers. Modeled after Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School, the Sinatra school also sends students into Manhattan to see galleries, museums, and concerts as part of the curriculum.

Another new school affiliated with York College in the city’s university system will “tap into the specialized testing program that you’re familiar with in terms of Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech.” The new collaborative magnet school, Queens High School for the Sciences, will have an intensive, preparatory course load.

Of two more new schools, one will focus on law enforcement and public safety, and the other on information technology. The first works with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as the NYPD and other professional organizations that allow students access and internships. The students focus on law, forensics, and other aspects of enforcement. Lee hopes to grow the information technology high school to 1,000 students in the near future because there such a large demand for IT development.

When his district holds staff development seminars on information technology for teachers, for example, the sessions are swamped. “We had so much interest in tech that we had almost six hundred teachers. We had to open up two different sites,” he said.

Other schools focus on teaching, the liberal arts, and sciences; American studies; community service; arts and business; and even aviation. They collaborate with St. John’s University, York College, LaGuardia Community College, and others to prepare students for college or the mastery of a craft.

“The colleges have been very receptive to working with us,” Lee said.#

City: State:

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