The dropout rate is nearly 30%. Armed guards and metal detectors outnumber lunch boxes on school grounds. Around the nation, reading, writing and 'rithmetic are in ruins.
Then there's Stuyvesant High School.
There are no dropouts and no drug problems. All Stuyvesant graduates go to college, a majority of them to one of the Ivy League schools. The football team has a 91 grade average and scored 1,300 on national Scholastic Aptitude Tests; the nationwide average is 903.
This school on Manhattan's Lower East Side has produced two Nobel laureates and one Fields medalist in math. Perennially, it wins more Westinghouse science awards and National Merit Scholarships than nearly any school in the nation.
"People are always trying to figure out if we have some special secret or formula," said principal Abraham Baumel. "We really don't."
Trying to figure out how Stuyvesant became a diamond in New York's thorny educational crown is like debating which came first, the chicken or the egghead. Does the school's reputation for excellence attract the best students, or have the cream-of-the-crop kids built the Stuyvesant mystique?
The answers, Baumel said, are yes and yes.
Stuyvesant students come from all over the city. Some of them commute two hours from Staten Island or Queens. They represent some of the city's richest and poorest families and their interests are as diverse as their backgrounds.
If the 2,700 students have one attribute in common, Baumel said, it is being highly motivated.
"The kids in this school pursue academics with the same vigor most of Middle America pursues sports," the principal said. "When a kid gets 100 here, kids will say, 'Hey, way to go, man!' It's like the quarterback just tossed a crucial pass."
Indeed, the trophy cases that line Stuyvesant's five floors are jammed with plaques and awards in math, science, poetry and debate.
Yellowing photos of students shaking hands with Presidents and governors hang on bulletin boards amid handmade signs about a veal boycott, a Young Astronauts Club meeting and ads for the Comic Book Marketplace.
The youngsters are studying Portuguese, "The Bible as Literature," and "Language, Mind and Artificial Intelligence."
"The level of work is unbelievable. The work they do is on a level that would destroy the average college student, much less the average high school student," Baumel said.
"If you don't work hard, there's not a place for you in this school," said Bianca Santomasso, 17.
Some teachers find Stuyvesant students intimidating. "The work is very demanding. The kids are very demanding," the principal said.
Others are inspired. "It's incredible! I learn from them ," biology teacher Roz Bierig said. "They know things that aren't even published yet!"
Long before magnet schools became the educational vogue, Stuyvesant, between Gramercy Park and a pocket of slum housing projects--was turning out some of America's brightest scholars.
Stuyvesant alumni include actor Jimmy Cagney (class of '18); Nobel Prize winners Joshua Lederberg and Roald Hoffman ('41 and '55); Mad magazine editor Nick Meglin ('53) and the former chief of the Watergate task force, attorney Richard Ben-Veniste ('60).
Air Force Col. Ronald Grabe (class of '62) spread Stuyvesant's fame farther than anyone else. He took a 1932 Stuyvesant pennant with him when the Atlantis space shuttle circled the globe in 1989.
Founded in 1904 as a vocational school for boys, the school originally trained the sons of Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants. Girls were first admitted in 1969.
Baumel said that the school remains a haven for immigrant achievers. Nearly half of the current students are Asian.
Students, evenly split between the sexes, must take an entrance exam to qualify for admission, as they do at the city's two other science and math schools, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech.
About 13,000 applicants take the exam yearly; Stuyvesant accepts 800 of them--400 boys and 400 girls. Because of its small capacity, Stuyvesant's cutoff score is 50 points higher on the exam than Bronx Science, and 150 above Brooklyn Tech's.
The school's reputation may attract them, but Baumel credits the students with maintaining their own high standards.
He mentioned 1988 Westinghouse winner and Stuyvesant graduate Chetan Nayak, who taught himself the complex math theory of tensor analysis and was doing graduate-level math at age 13.
Baumel said that when Nayak was a sophomore, he read a paper by the Princeton physics professor John Wheeler on unified field theory in physics, then called Wheeler on the phone and started firing questions at him.
"You've got to understand," Baumel said, his voice rising in excitement. "Einstein is here ," he said, pointing to an invisible line, "and John Wheeler is here --just one step below. You're talking about one of the top physicists in the world, and (Nayak) just called him up to chat!"
Wheeler became Nayak's mentor in the research work that won Nayak, now at Harvard, Westinghouse's top prize of $20,000.
But there is more than brains to Stuyvesant. Its students also are known for their inventiveness, spunk and charitable works.
When one boy wanted to start a lacrosse team, he went out and raised $7,000 necessary for the equipment.
Two other students persuaded each of the school's 75 home rooms to sponsor a foreign foster child. Their efforts have made Stuyvesant the world's largest foster parent, both in size and heart.
Other Stuy students have collected shoes for the homeless, made Thanksgiving dinner for elderly New Yorkers, tutored poor children in the projects and served as translators for new immigrants.
"The popular misconception is that Stuyvesant students go home and read the dictionary or something like that," said 16-year-old Sirish Maddali. "I play the guitar in the band, manage the school baseball team. . . . I do lots of regular things. I just happen to like science, too."
A squarely built, athletic youth who hopes to become a cardiovascular surgeon, Sirish is one of those kids who was attracted to Stuyvesant because of its reputation. The only difference was that he was living in Nigeria when he heard of it.
His family moved to New York in 1986. He enrolled at Stuyvesant in 1987 and jumped into the Westinghouse science program, beginning research in the field of enzyme kinetics.
For two years, Sirish attended 10 classes each day and then headed straight to a professional lab for a further five hours of work. Many experiments required overnight stays. He kept a toothbrush handy.
Weekends and summer vacations were also spent at the lab, where he was such a frequent visitor he was given his own key, a privilege denied many Ph.D. candidates.
His work, "A Better Statistical Analysis by Nonlinear Parameter Estimation of the Acid Phosphatase Activity of the Genetically Engineered Microbe W3110 (R702) in Soil Amended with Montmorillonite or Kaolinite Clay," earned him a spot in semifinals of the Westinghouse contest. Bigger prizes lie ahead, of course.
In fact, Stuyvesant High students dominate the Westinghouse contest, which pays awards from $7,500 to $20,000.
Of this year's Westinghouse honorees, 39 came from Stuyvesant.