Mediaka Ntungu, a junior at Hillhouse High School, never thought he’d get the chance to meet New Haven’s mayor. Then, on Thursday, Toni Harp personally congratulated him on a stellar performance in his upper-level computer science and chemistry classes.
Ntungu, an aspiring coder, was one of 19 top-performing Hillhouse students recognized in a special awards ceremony at City Hall. All 19 are enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, high-level courses that can count towards college credit if students earn a passing score on a national test.
Harp feted the students with speeches and pizza, adding her support to the school’s efforts to rebrand itself from a powerhouse in sports to a center of learning.
The event was similar to ones (like this one) that have honored school athletes.
“Standing with me are New Haven’s finest. These students know what it takes to succeed in school,” Harp said before handing out plaques. “You are the best and brightest in your school, and we are sure each and every one of you are destined for greatness. You too can change the world. And remember there will always be a place for you in the Elm City.”
Principal Glen Worthy took over the high school in 2016 after some criticized an experiment that broke Hillhouse into three academies with three separate principals, a reorganization that students complained resulted in dysfunction.
Since then, Worthy has sent teachers to a four-day training on AP classes, expanded AP offerings, and created a pre-AP program for freshmen and sophomores. Along the way, his assistant principal, John Tarka, rooted on AP scholars, as if they were competing in an athletic championship matches.
The students who’ve enrolled in AP classes so far said they’ve seen what a difference their rigor can make.
Mahdeen Khan, a senior standout in physics who received an early acceptance from Yale College and a full ride to the University of Connecticut, said the classes challenged him to meet a “very high standard.” He said he hoped more of his classmates would sign up.
“From my time at Hillhouse, I’ve seen there’s a lot of intelligence in all the kids,” Khan said. “I know everyone has the ability; everyone is capable of taking an AP course and excelling in it. They just need a little extra push.”
Ntungu said his classes broadened his interests. In his AP Computer Science class, the students are currently building an app that will help visitors look past chains to find New Haven’s one-of-a-kind restaurants. They plan to submit it to competitions once it’s finalized.
Ntungu hopes to one day start his own company. He said meeting with the mayor “reinvigorated” him to pursue those dreams.
Likewise, Mohamed Naji, a junior who was recognized for his achievement in government, calculus and English, said his classes were the “first step” that he hopes will take him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University, then on to a career in engineering or programming.
After a distracting, year-long search for a new superintendent, Harp said, she hopes to turn the district’s focus to boosting academic performance, figuring out ways for students to graduate with basic proficiency in math and reading.
As the newly appointed chair of the Teaching and Learning Committee, she’ll play a role in recommending how students can not only access AP courses, but also pass the test.
“That’s the second stage of this. Now we’ve got the kids taking the test, now we’ve got to pass the test,” said Reggie Mayo, the interim superintendent. “It’s a difficult, competitive test. But it takes you so far.”
According to the latest batch of state testing data, 61.7 percent of students in upper grades in New Haven’s high schools took classes that would prepare them for life after graduation, way up from 52.7 percent the year before. But only 18.1 percent passed college-level exams, like the SAT or AP, inching up from 16.7 percent the year before. The state said 75 percent of students should be passing those tests.
A major part of the district’s push will be certifying educators in AP courses, even if those teachers don’t end up hosting the classes right away. “It’s a higher, better level of instruction,” Mayo said.
Next year, every ninth-grade and tenth-grade teacher at Hillhouse (and Hill Regional Career High School) will participate in a pilot training program run by the College Board. “The goal is to get [younger students] ready,” Worthy said.
Eventually, he wants three-quarters of the student body to graduate with at least one AP class on their transcript.
In addition to Ntungu, Naji and Khan, Hillhouse’s scholars included Janet Guerrero, Naomi Wright, Kyra Brown, Gillian Ofori, Suzzanah Spruill, Samir Lee, Tamara Price, Ammar Al Zouabi, Mahdeen Khan, Kevin Rodriguez, Lydia Ogbe, Zaddy Lopez Alonzo, Zuleika Zambrana, Cesarina Pena, and Enyoli Hernandez.