Top High Schools

 

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MAKING THE GRADE

The slim, gray-haired principal stands at the entrance to Staples High School from 6:45 to 7:30 a.m. daily, greeting his staff and students at the start of their school day. "That's how I meet a lot of kids and learn their names," says John Dodig.

The veteran school head, wearing a small stud earring in his left earlobe and a muted gray plaid sports jacket, came out of retirement five years ago, intending to fill the principal's vacancy temporarily. But he fell in love with the school, put his hat in the ring for the permanent position and won the job.

His openness and accessibility have helped propel Staples into the No. 1 spot in the state, say teachers and parents. "When we went here, Staples was a good school; now it's amazing," says Anne Hardy, a graduate of the class of '79 who has a daughter in Staples' class of 2010.

Teachers agree that Dodig has made a difference. "You need the right principal for the right generation," says Gerry Kuroghlian, who has worked for six other principals in his 42 years teaching English at Staples. "He's the best. He's very student-centered, and that's what it should be about."

The tools for success came with the job, Dodig, 64, says modestly. "It's a very accepting community and a very well-educated community. By and large, the kids who come here are motivated, respectful, inquisitive and responsible," he says. Their parents value education, and many move to Westport because of its schools' sterling reputations.

Parental interest-meaning involvement in the school and attention to their child's education-is the No. 1 attribute of a great school, according to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va.

What Dodig added to the mix at Staples was a desire to make the large school (1,763 students) feel like a small community, and interest in improving existing opportunities. "Every program we do, we expect it to be at varsity level, the highest level," he says. The culinary department boasts two test kitchens, he notes, and the radio station broadcasts 24 hours. "Our black-box theater is a real one, better than many on 8th and 9th avenues," he says.

The formula devised by Connecticut Magazine to rate the state's traditional public schools included the number of AP courses offered and how many students take at least one; the number of AP tests graded 3 or better; CAPT results for reading, writing, math and science; SAT verbal and math scores; percentage of faculty with advanced degrees, and the percentage of graduates going on to two- or four-year colleges.

Statistics are great, but Sklarow treasures less tangible measures, such as an administration that encourages teenagers to be creative. In this era of widespread testing and "No Child Left Behind" requirements, administrators who encourage teachers to go outside the textbooks deserve high marks, he says. Also, the ability of a school to motivate all students, not just its prize winners, is paramount, he adds.

While looking at honors and AP courses can help ascertain how a school challenges its best pupils (and how many "best" students it has), the more difficult task is discerning how a middling or struggling student has been encouraged. If middling students are shuttled off to the same few colleges, or to the local community colleges, it could suggest that the school's energy is channeled exclusively into the top students, Sklarow explains.

Similarly, with the bottom students, "Even if they're struggling, we should be challenging them in areas where they can succeed," he says. "A student who can write might take a more advanced English class while taking remedial math."

Another element of greatness in Sklarow's view is a school where everyone from the principal to the custodians seems excited to be there. Some do a great job emphasizing school spirit, he says.

At Staples, the week before Homecoming was Spirit Week, and students were encouraged to wear pajamas that Wednesday. Many strolled the halls in flannel bottoms and sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of elite colleges and universities.

Wealthy suburban schools have an academic edge to be sure. Westport, for instance, spends almost $16,000 a year per pupil on education, says superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon.

Upgraded technology, current textbooks and state-of-the-art facilities come with the territory, just like watchful parents. But that doesn't mean that inner-city schools are doomed. "There are plenty of inner-city schools where expectations are high and kids are reminded daily to be proud of themselves and their school," says Sklarow.

 

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