Malverne High School: "Little New York City"

02/24/2016 10:16 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

The first time Dr. James Hunderfund entered Malverne High School, the hallways felt "hostile."

"You didn't want to stay in one place too long," he said recently.

That was then. This is now.

Back then, Hunderfund was interim superintendent of the small district in Nassau County, New York, where Malverne High School is the only high school. He was one of a long series of superintendents, a detail mirrored by a large turnover of staff at the high school.

He's still there, and the young assistant principal who started at roughly the same time is now principal. The intervening years have seen a lot of improvement.

In 2003, for example, only about 51 percent of students graduated with a Regents, or standard, diploma. Ninety-three percent graduated last year, with 54 percent of them earning an Advanced Designation. A big deal in New York State, the Advanced Designation represents mastery of a college preparatory curriculum, and almost 70 percent of Malverne's students are on track right now to earn one this year.

At the same time, the number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam has grown to 142 in 2015 -- impressive in a school that only has about 500 students. And 66 percent of them pass, a much higher percentage than many schools and meaningful in a school that works to include students in AP classes rather than exclude them.

But wait, there's more. More than 100 students are in the band, and 65 students are on the robotics team, which represented New York in the national competition that took place in Kentucky last year. Many students participate in theater, play on sports teams, and the list goes on.

Needless to say, the hallways don't feel hostile. More like bustling. "I call it Little New York," said Al Lewis, a retired New York City principal who has grandchildren in the school, "because it never sleeps." Students are in the building from 7:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night in play rehearsals, basketball games, AP review classes, and more.

Despite all that success, students at Malverne High School report that their school is still stigmatized. Part of the reason, they say, is that the school's history as a low-performing school still haunts it. But part of it is simply because about half the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, and 80 percent of the students are either African American or Hispanic.

"As a person of color, that's something you deal with your whole life," said senior Brianna Atkins about what she says is an expectation that a school with mostly students of color must automatically be low-performing.

Malverne's story is part of the story of Nassau County, which has been called "one of the most fragmented, segregated, and unequal in the U.S." Although the residents of Malverne are predominately white, most of the town's children go to private or parochial schools, a legacy of 1970s-era white flight. The 60 percent of students who are African American and 20 percent who are Hispanic mostly live in the next town over, Lakeview.

Recently, however, a few white students have started trickling back, which now means about 15 percent of the students in the school are white, drawn to a school where, as Jeanne D'Esposito, a white parent, said, "You never run into a closed door."

There is a lot that has gone into making Malverne High School as successful as it is: teachers who say their motto is "above and beyond" and students who deeply appreciate their teachers' efforts. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard the words, 'I'll make it work,'" is how sophomore Olivia St. John put it.

But one of the keys has to be the work of the leadership team led by Principal Dr. Vincent Romano, who ensures that his school opens as many opportunities to students as possible. To give an example of what I mean, I'm going to call attention to something that people who don't work in high schools may not appreciate: the school's master schedule.

School schedules are a bit of an obscure topic in education, but nowhere are a school's priorities and values more on display than in its schedule, and Malverne's is built around making sure all students get the classes they need and want. This is in sharp contrast to many high schools, where students are told that they have to choose among the classes they want to take because of "the schedule."

As an assistant principal for many years, Romano was responsible for building the master schedule. Since becoming principal, he has handed the immediate responsibility off to Dean of Students Christopher Brescia, but Brescia is just as obsessive as Romano about ensuring that "no computer should tell a kid no," as he put it.

Speaking from experience, Romano said that Brescia spends "thousands of hours on the schedule -- he basically hand schedules every student."

Romano introduced me to two students who are hoping to be teachers, one a foreign language teacher. They mentioned they were taking AP Spanish and AP Italian, and Romano started to laugh. He said that when they had started thinking about this year's schedule, he had told Brescia that the one thing they could bank on was that no one would take both AP Spanish and AP Italian, so they put them at the same time. "And then these two came along, and we had to change the whole schedule."

Any high school student or parent will recognize that as going -- as the teachers put it -- "above and beyond."

I'll be writing more about Malverne in the future, but for now I just want to say that Malverne High School demonstrates that there are educators out there who know how to make schools work for all kids.

Regular readers of this column may remember my writing about another Long Island school, Elmont Memorial High School. There is a pivotal relationship that links the two schools, which I'll continue to write about.