Environmental High School
By Jon Reidel Article published October 20, 2004
In the lobby of New York City’s High School for Environmental Studies, which is housed in a turn-of-the-century art deco structure that once belonged to Fox Film Studios, remnants of an elegant past are etched into the ornate ceilings and elaborate walls.
The entranceway leads to stairs and an elevator where the décor changes to that of an urban public school. On one of the walls is a display telling students about the University of Vermont. They pass it on their way up to the rooftop where trees, plants, a greenhouse and other environmental projects create an oasis above the concrete streets below.
It’s here that the differences, as well as the distance, between UVM and HSES are most prominent. The Green Mountains seem worlds away from the top of West 56th Street, and, to many of the 1,600 students here, they are as remote as the silent films created at their school in the early 1900s. A growing partnership program between the two schools is beginning to bridge the gap.
“I remember being very curious about UVM,” recalls Joanna Pina ’02, one of the first HSES students to come to UVM. “I thought, ‘Wow, Vermont, what is that all about? … But I wanted to hear what they had to say and they stayed in touch with me. The Latin community is very family-oriented and you don’t get a lot of support when you want to venture out of it, especially to a place that seems as far away as Vermont. But UVM made it like a family. I love my college.”
UVM has made great strides in bridging this cultural and geographical gap since Brooklyn-native Don DeHayes, now dean of the Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources, first visited about seven years ago to see if he could build some connections with a high school considered a national model for urban environmental education.
It seemed like a natural fit not only from an intellectual perspective, but also with UVM’s efforts to attract more students of color. At the time, HSES was relatively new and had about 500 students. It has more than tripled in size since and now has a racial composition of 37 percent Latin American; 23 percent African-American; 21 percent white; and 18 percent Asian American.
“When I first went there I was thinking more about recruiting students of color to UVM, but also about the environmental connection,” says DeHayes. “I thought we had some underrepresented student groups and I didn’t think we were doing enough to build connections in the city. I grew up there and had to learn about the environment after college, so I also wanted to increase visibility of the environment at an earlier age.”
DeHayes and other faculty and staff members started making trips to the school to give lectures and talk with students and teachers. A point person, Maria Dykema Erb, coordinates interactions between the schools and trips to the campus by students that UVM has identified as admissions prospects.
M’Lis Bartlett, executive director of Friends of the High School for Environmental Studies, says UVM’s help in preparing students at the school for college, even though there is no guarantee they will go to UVM, is extremely valuable.
“It seemed like it was a natural link beyond just straight-up college admissions,” she says. “Don DeHayes and Don Honeman (director of admissions and financial aid) invited us up to UVM, so we started out focusing on early college, which was a very generous thing for UVM to do because 1,600 kids aren’t going to apply there. That early college training and exposure makes such a difference. It’s been really great for not only the students but also for our teachers who work with the UVM professors who lecture here.”
The connection is part of the university’s growing high school partnership initiative, which includes collaborations with nearby Burlington High School and Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx. The partnerships are designed to provide the schools with college-awareness programs — particularly targeted to students whose parents have not attended college — while fostering diversity at UVM.
Guidance counselors at the HSES say UVM has become one of the most applied-to schools for graduates and continues to grow in popularity. The competition with Ivy League schools, which usually claim the bulk of HSES’ top 20 graduates, and nearby schools is stiff. But with about 90 percent of HSES graduates going to college, there is plenty of recruiting upside for UVM.
“I don’t think we can get their top-top students, but I think we could eventually get about 10 students a year. That would be wonderful,” says Debby Gale, admissions officer and diversity team leader.
Once here, HSES students, many of whom receive USDA multicultural grants, seem to thrive. Current undergraduates Min Zheng and Dylan Arie Hass-Floersch both say the transition was easier than they thought despite the cultural differences and adjustment of living in a much smaller city. “It’s a difficult adjustment for a lot of kids, but once you get here there’s a lot of support,” Hass-Floersch says. “So good, so far,” adds Zheng.
Students from the school are well-prepared academically, especially in environmental subjects. The school has offerings including programs in environmental science, environmental law, wildlife conservation, environmental justice and others. The school also offers internships that give students a chance to restore hiking trails in Nature Conservancy preserves, study the health effects of asbestos with research scientists at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine's environmental health program, and to teach young children at the New York Aquarium.
“A lot of the kids (at HSES) have so much potential, but don’t get a chance to reach it because they don’t have enough money or don’t know what’s out there, and I think that’s sad,” Pina says. “UVM is doing a great thing by going to the kids and showing them what’s possible. They are becoming a leader in the recruitment of minorities in New York City.”