Gifted Students Thrive in Vocational Environment
A gifted student complains that her classes are too easy, so she gets bored. We know traditional teaching styles don’t engage all children, but what’s the alternative?
Enter Bergen County Academies, a vocational and technical public school for gifted students in northern New Jersey. It opened on the Hackensack campus of Bergen County Technical Schools in 1992.
Today, BCA offers seven specialized programs in the areas of math and science, engineering and design, medical science, business and finance, culinary arts, performing arts, and telecommunications. It routinely sends graduates to the Ivy League.
“Everything is project based,” said Daniel Jaye, who was an assistant principal at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 2006 before being recruited to be the principal at BCA. “It’s just a place where kids learn by doing, and not so much by learning what is placed on the blackboard and regurgitating it.”
Traditionally, vocational schools were devoted to training job-specific skills such as plumbing, carpentry, cosmetology, landscaping, masonry, and electrical work. But as industries modernized and college degrees became a prerequisite for many jobs in the 1990s, the purely vocational focus began to shift.
When you visit BCA’s sprawling red-brick complex, it feels more like a college campus than a high school. The school day is from 8:00 a.m. to 4:10 p.m., about an hour and forty-five minutes longer than a typical high school day. Classes are not held every day, giving students and faculty time to do ongoing research and creative thinking. Also, the average class size is only 18-20 students.
BCA has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cutting-edge equipment. In 2007, the school opened a stem cell research lab, complete with a flow cytometer and the ability to manipulate stem cells. Down the hall, two scanning electronic microscopes anchor the nanotechnology lab, where students investigate inflammatory breast cancer.
“Because of the technology that we have, they were able to characterize tunnels that, up until now, had not been discovered in inflammatory breast cancer tumors,” said Jaye. “We are hoping to exploit [the tunnels] using nanotechnology for drug delivery to perhaps target the cells for destruction.”
Admission to the four-year school is open to all graduating middle school students in Bergen County. An annual pool of 1,500 to 1,700 applications is whittled down in a rigorous process of testing and interviewing. Only about 265 make the cut. Students are bused in from as far away as 25 miles.
Enrollment is limited to about 1,100 students. All 110 teachers have master’s degrees and more than 20 percent have doctorates. The school is financed through county taxes and aid from the state, along with “tuition” for each student paid by their home district.
Students are required to stay in their chosen academy for the entire four years, but there are plenty of opportunities to take electives from other academies.
“Our culinary institute is right across the hall from our stem cell research center,” said Jaye. “You can see kids wearing white coats for entirely different reasons. And in fact, many of the kids keep the white coats on because, for example, we have culinary students who are doing advanced scientific research as well.” #