By Jill Ryan and Josh Farber
Westbury High School became the third school on Long Island to implement a ninth grade academy on September 1, joining Brentwood and Massapequa school districts.
Due to overcrowding, the school leased and refurbished the Nassau Community College North Annex to become their Ninth Grade Academy, but with only a week’s notice before the first day of school.
Westbury’s incoming class brought them nearly 37% over capacity. Principal David Zimbler knew the school had to do something before students came back.
“Our school district has no other buildings than we have now and all of them are up to capacity,” Zimbler said.
The district applied over the summer for a one year lease at the North Annex and were initially denied approval by the New York State Education Department, but after they appealed to state Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, they were approved within a week of the first day of school.
All 336 ninth graders now go to the North Annex and the Ninth Grade Academy was born.
A ninth grade academy should be more than just separation from the other grades, Dr. Constancia Warren, co-author of “The Study of Promising Ninth Grade Transition Strategies,” said.
“They [ninth graders] feel physically safer from the big kids [and] that may help on the margins, but it’s not going to address some of the other kinds of developmental challenges,” Warren said.
Ninth grade is a pivotal point in a student’s future academic pursuits, Anna Fazekas, a former ninth grade academy coordinator for the Farragut Career Academy in Chicago, said.
With the right programs, ninth grade academies can be successful for getting students on track to graduate.
“Schools and districts have taken up a lot of steps to better support students in that ninth grade year and a ninth grade academy is one of the most popular ways to do that,” Fazekas, co-author of “The Study of Promising Ninth Grade Transition Strategies” said.
Westbury has programs such as the Professional Learning Communities, where teams of teachers determine the academic needs of each ninth grader, according to Dr. Paul Pelech, the Assistant Principal and overseer of the academy.
However, even with these programs, the academy needed to be physically renovated.
“This building [North Annex] wasn’t designed to be a high school,” Pelech said.
Schedules needed to be made, staircases were too narrow, some walls needed to be put up and others taken down, and there was no cafeteria or nurse’s office.
“Within 48 hours we did every bit of construction on this building. You’re seeing a miracle happen, a carefully planned miracle,” Pelech said.
Security cameras were also installed throughout and every door had to be locked and alarmed.
“It was a little challenging at first because it is a brand new building,” Jeff Smith, Westbury School District Security Supervisor, said.
There’s been few challenges getting students to this newly secured facility, security guard, Martin Riley, said. Buses get students to and from their homes, the North Annex, the off-site gymnasium and the main campus for after school activities. Riley, spends half his day directing students to the proper buses.
“Some get here earlier than others and such the confusion starts from that point. No real complaints, everything seems to be fine at the moment,” Riley said.
Students aren’t the only ones traveling. Some teachers teach at both the North Annex and the main campus and commute between the two. Patricia Trongone teaches 9th grade STEM and regents physics but doesn’t mind the travel.
“It’s a five, six minute commute, short, very easy, especially in the middle of the day and I’m given a period off during the travel time,” Trongone said.
The overcrowding issue may have been the “catalyst” for the academy, Pelech said, but Westbury plans to keep this instructional philosophy regardless of where their ninth graders are.
“You could pick up this building and put it inside the high school or pick up this building and put it in a separate building, but on the main campus,” Pelech said. “It’s not the building. It’s the classes and the teachers that is the ninth grade academy.”