Students Shine At Voyages Prep H.S.
To fully appreciate Voyages Preparatory High School in Elmhurst, Queens you need to talk to the students.
One student said, “It’s a fun school. It makes you want to come here. If you don’t want to get up, they call you.” Another student, Diane Lopez, of Ozone Park, Queens, noted, “We know everybody. We’re small, we are on one floor.” Lopez is also enthusiastic about going to school. “They make it fun”, she said. “It’s not, oh my God, I hate school. We just wake up and come here.”
These are statements from students who had trouble getting to school and who put their education in jeopardy. But they found the 3-year-old Voyages High School, transferred in, and became engaged in the learning process.
Andy Mikhail graduated last June and now plays basketball at Hudson Valley Community College in Albany, New York. Mikhail played varsity basketball on the new basketball team at Voyages, got bitten by the basketball bug, and dreams of playing in a Division 1 program, the highest competitive level of college basketball. He said of Voyages, “It’s a very good school. It benefits a lot of people.”
Voyages stands for Viable Options for Young Adults to Grow, Excel and Succeed and is led by the passionate and dedicated principal, Dr. Joan Klingsberg. Dr. Klingsberg has more than 25 years of experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, and specialist in professional development in the New York City Department of Education. She received her Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College. She wanted to lead a school that served students who were overage and under-credited. She developed a proposal and pitched it to the Board of Education and her idea was approved. Space was found in a refurbished building which houses other schools. Voyages occupies the entire second floor of a large building on 94th Street in Elmhurst.
For many students, it is a place that helps them get back on track after years of failure and frustration. Voyages reaches those who were the outcasts, the ones who flunked courses, or who simply didn’t show up for class. They accept the student who had given up on school and didn’t imagine having a future, much less going to college.
“They have been on their own a really, really long time and perfected bad habits,” Dr. Klingsberg said. “We’re about undoing those habits.”
This is being done with a concerted effort by teachers, parents, merchants in the community and non-profit groups who assist with personnel or funds.
Teachers come to the school and because of the peer support and the general positive attitude from Dr. Klingsberg, they grow and become better teachers. In three years, only one teacher had left the school after deciding not to continue teaching. The faculty consists of the same core group, including the principal. New teachers are asked to give a demonstration class, which is critiqued by students. A new teacher must also present a letter of recommendation from an adolescent.
What helps attract teachers to Voyages is the intense professional development that they frequently receive. When the school breaks for lunch, 225 kids leave the building, and the teachers are involved in learning how they can improve as an educator. “Quite honestly, it’s the highlight of everybody’s day,” said Dr. Klingsberg.
Teachers look forward to helping each other become better communicators, to assessing each other’s lesson plans, and looking for strategies to reach out to their students.
Voyages makes an effort to communicate with parents and keep them in the loop.
A parent-teacher conference is planned for the entire school in late October. Parents can come to school and learn what their child is doing in class and meet their teachers.
A day is also being planned to have parents sit in with their child in class. The students are aware of this, and some feel anxious, but overall, the feeling is that they want their parents to see how well they are doing academically and that they like being in school.
Dr. Klingsberg and the staff have created an atmosphere of openness, trust and self-responsibility. Once a student has been accepted into the program, they may feel wary and defensive. “You have to prove to them that you genuinely care,” said Dr. Klingsberg.
“Once they know that someone genuinely cares, they will do whatever you ask to levels that you never thought possible.”
Students took this reporter on a tour of classrooms and proudly showed the art room, which looked like an artist’s studio, and their weight room, which had brand new equipment.
Voyages also has a Learning to Work program, which funds 90 students to intern at an hourly rate. The Queens Community House, a local non-profit group, has been instrumental in providing professional support and funds to make this a viable program.
Dr. Klingsberg made it clear that students must pass five Regents Exams to earn their diploma. Students do their assigned homework and meet their goals, and get rewarded with a “star student” award. She notes the school is big on celebrations and acknowledging achieved goals.
Denea Fleary, a student who plans to graduate after the November trimester, hopes to work with animals. Earning a high school diploma will bring her dream closer to reality. “You get a diploma and get to go on with your life,” she said. #