By Julie Shapiro
A small, largely unknown high school on Grand St. is attracting national attention.
The Dual Language and Asian Studies High School just ranked No. 31 on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of the country’s top high schools. The Dual Language School, whose graduates speak both Mandarin and English, not only bested thousands of schools around the country, but also beat elite city schools like Bronx Science.
“We knew it from Day One — that’s what we’re shooting for,” said Li Yan, the school’s principal.
While Yan was not shocked to see his five-year-old school make the list — based on last year’s rankings, he calculated that he had a good chance — some may be surprised to see the Dual Language School in the company of the city and country’s best.
“A lot of people don’t know about it,” Yan agreed as he gave Downtown Express a school tour last week. “The name turns a lot of people off — they think it’s just an E.S.L. school, and they’re not sending their kids there.”
The school does have a large English as a Second Language program for Chinese students, but it is the first dual language high school in the city, meaning it also does the opposite, teaches English-speaking students to speak Chinese. Within four years, the students who initially did not have enough common language to carry on a conversation are sitting side by side in classrooms where the instruction is in a mixture of English and Mandarin. All graduating students must pass both the English and Chinese Regents exams.
Yan sees the U.S. News ranking as particularly impressive because unlike many of the schools on the list, Dual Language has no entrance exam. Sixty-five percent of the students are recent arrivals from China. Many of the native English speakers scored below average on state tests in middle school. Eighty percent of the students receive a free lunch.
To Yan, none of that matters.
“If they’re motivated, we will take them,” he said.
The motivation is essential for students to succeed in the Dual Language School’s intense academic program. The native English speakers take a double period of Mandarin every day, on top of their regular coursework. By junior year, they attend science and social studies classes taught in a mixture of English and Mandarin — and they have to be ready to answer teachers in either language.
The path is no easier for the Chinese students, who have to learn English quickly while keeping up with a full course load. Chinese students also continue honing their native language with Chinese literature classes.
The school offers Advanced Placement, or college-level, courses in calculus, biology, chemistry and Chinese. Next year, the school will add A.P. English and World History and will begin requiring all students to take A.P. Chinese.
Juniors and seniors start school as early as 7:15 a.m. to do double chemistry and biology labs, and those taking Advanced Placement courses aren’t done until 5 p.m.
“It’s a very long day for kids,” Yan said. “We push them.”
But at the end of the day, the students often aren’t ready to leave. They stay to do their homework, shoot hoops in the gym and swim in the pool.
“We have to kick the kids out,” said Miriam Uzan, the assistant principal. “At 6:30, we literally have to say, ‘Go.’”
Many of the students come back for a half-day on Saturdays, for E.S.L. classes or SAT prep. The parents often come, too — the school offers free English classes to 60 parents a week. Some students also take weekend classes at New York University.
As Yan walked through the school’s hallways on a recent morning, students approached him to say hello or tell him about their classes, greeting him with a smile and sometimes a handshake. Yan, who looks like an executive in a suit and tie, carried a jangling ring of keys in one hand, and students frequently asked him to unlock an empty classroom so they could use it to study. Others gathered in informal study groups in the cafeteria between lunch waves, or else they worked quietly in the back of other classes.
The school has so little space that Yan sometimes cedes his capacious office to students working on group projects, and supplies often stack up in the hallway for lack of storage closets
The hallways are as colorful as an elementary school, with drawings hanging on the walls, inscribed with the early beginnings of both Chinese and English. One second-year E.S.L. class made posters of the characters from “The Simpsons,” including each one’s traits, habits and wishes.
Discipline did not appear to be an issue, or even a question, at the school — even when a flood of students headed for the lunchroom, the students did not shout or push. There are no hall passes or bathroom passes, as Yan believes in building trust with the students. He seeks the same relationship with their parents.
“We don’t have an open house,” Yan said. “I tell parents to come anytime they want, and that’s our open house.”
Uzan, the assistant principal, describes the school as a family, where the teachers look out for the students and the students look out for each other. If her daughter wasn’t grown, Uzan said she would send her to Dual Language.
The school has only 300 students, so Yan is able to learn their names and tailor each student’s program. Class size is also small — 20 students on average, far below the union limit of 34.
Christian Schmidt had only eight students in his health class on a recent morning. Schmidt, who is also the school’s art teacher, spoke with the students about shifting gender roles and then gave them free reign with ink and brushes to reinterpret Chinese characters through the lens of gender.
Bingyun Wang, 17, drew the curving character for “woman” first on the left and then the right side of her paper. To the figure on the left, she added long hair, a dress and a baby; the figure on the right got short hair, pants and a book.
“That’s the traditional woman, and that’s the modern woman,” Wang said, speaking softly as she pointed to her work.
Wang moved from China to New York three years ago and spoke almost no English. She said she likes the Dual Language School.
“The school is clean and the people are friendly,” she said. “We have a lot of homework, but it’s for our future.”
Kara Jordon, 16, from Staten Island, sat across the table from Wang. A native English speaker, she said learning Chinese was intimidating at first, because the language is based on characters, not letters.
“But you get so used to it that it just becomes natural,” Jordon said. Her chemistry teacher now asks students to reply to questions in Chinese. “I honestly think it’s fun,” she said. “It’s so cool.”
Jordon initially wanted to study Japanese in high school, not Chinese, but she said she is glad she chose to attend Dual Language. The best part of the school, she said, is the other students.
“These are the kind of people you want to be friends with for life,” she said.
The students were excited about the U.S. News ranking, and they said their parents were even more impressed. When Yan first started the school, he had trouble convincing parents to send their children to a place with no reputation, a problem that still persists to some extent.
Back then, Yan told parents, “I can’t guarantee it, but I know one day this will be one of the best schools in the city.”
Every Dual Language student in the first two graduating classes has gone to college, except for one who joined the military. Yan estimates that his students have netted over $3 million in college scholarships.
The U.S. News list ranks high schools based on college readiness and the number of A.P. exams students take. Schools with low-income students, like Dual Language, are given extra credit if the students out-perform the average for their socio-economic bracket. Nearly 90 percent of students taking A.P. tests at Dual Language passed them, according to U.S. News.
The Dual Language School sits on the edge of Chinatown at Grand and Essex Sts., on the fifth floor of a building that used to house Seward Park High School and now contains four other small high schools. The location is convenient for field trips — last week, the freshmen learning Chinese used their fledgling Mandarin to bargain with vendors on Mott St. and order food at a restaurant.
The Dual Language School was founded almost overnight, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced its creation in June 2003 as part of his reform of the city’s English as a Second Language programs.
In early July 2003, the city tapped Yan to run the school.
“The D.O.E. said, ‘I don’t care what happens — you’re going to open that school in September,’” Yan recalled. “I had no teachers, no space, no kids. I told the chancellor I can’t do it.”
Chancellor Joel Klein said the city would take care of finding kids for the school, as long as Yan did everything else. So Yan spent the summer in a frenzy of hiring teachers and locating and preparing the space on Grand St. for opening day. One of the first things he did once he had the space was to renovate the bathrooms and replace the drab gray hallway floors with gleaming blue and yellow tiles, to set a positive tone for the school.
A week before the school opened, Yan got another call from the city, this time with bad news: Only two students had signed up to attend. Yan and the newly hired staff made countless phone calls to pull students in, and the school opened the following week with 28 students. By the end of October, they were up to 70 students, all of them from China and learning English for the first time. Fifty students remained at the end of the year, and 44 of them have graduated.
Five and a half years since the school opened, the busy teachers are pausing to bask in the U.S. News ranking.
“I was blown away,” said Chris Fuchs, who teaches Chinese and journalism. “I’m sort of speechless about it. Not that it’s surprising — but the enormity of it, considering how new we are.”
Fuchs, who used to be a journalist in Taiwan, said his second reaction — after the initial happiness — was to ask how Dual Language compared to Brooklyn Tech, his alma mater. Brooklyn Tech ranked No. 67 on the list this year, more than twice as far down as Dual Language.
Stuyvesant High School was the top-ranking city school, at No. 23, but Yan said he has some consolation there: Dual Language’s math team beat Stuyvesant several years ago.