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A Portrait of the Hilltop Academy
In its First Year

Alternative High School Program Offers a
Different Path to Academic Success

On a typical day at the Hilltop Academy, Roslyn High School's new alternative program, you might see a math teacher use a slate tabletop as a blackboard to illustrate a lesson for three or four students huddled around him. Or, in another room, a larger group engaged in a passionate classroom discussion about a book they are reading. Or in the student lounge upstairs, a dozen students all working in silent concentration on their laptops.

The Academy opened in September, 2008 to provide an alternative educational program for students in grades 8 through 12 who, for a variety of reasons, were not living up to their potential in the traditional high school setting.

"For a certain number of kids, the format of a traditional high school, with lectures, tests and highly structured days, is just not a good fit," explains Jay Pilnick, a Roslyn High School assistant principal who is the administrator in charge of the Academy's day-to-day operation. "These students were just not able to develop the organizational and social skills that enable most adolescents to make it in school. Every one of them is smart and college-bound. They just need to follow a different path to reach the goals that we expect every Roslyn High School student to achieve."

Expectations for the Academy's students are high. They follow the same Regents curriculum as other students, covering all the major subject areas. Each student's progress is monitored continually by a faculty advisor who is one of the Academy's teachers. Students perform a self-evaluation twice per semester in each class they are taking. They attend regular "community meetings" with all of the Academy's students and teachers to address issues that concern all students, and there is frequent contact between parents and teachers to ensure that students stay focused and on task.

A former special education teacher, Mr. Pilnick emphasizes that the Academy is not a special education program. "A few of the students do have special needs, but that's incidental to why they are here. The population is reflective of the high school population overall." Students are also not accepted into the Academy because of disciplinary or substance abuse problems. The focus is entirely academic: ensuring that every student graduates from high school with a strong academic record, and enters college as prepared as any other Roslyn High School student.

Creative Faculty & Innovative Curriculum

The Hilltop Academy has one full-time teacher, six part-time teachers and one teacher assistant. Faculty members were selected for their desire to serve this particular population and their high energy and enthusiasm for the task of building a new learning community. Having a counselor for the students is a critical part of successfully transitioning them into the program and sustaining their progress once they are enrolled.

Academy 1
Mr. Reiff and Ms. Jannotte (below) lead a class discussion about Macbeth.

Among the factors that distinguish the Academy's approach to learning from that of Roslyn High School or other high schools are the delivery of instruction and the design of courses. The most obvious difference is that classes are much smaller than usual, which is highly conducive to the Socratic method that characterizes most classroom interaction. The Academy's teachers also rely more heavily on an integrated curriculum model which provides an intense focus on many different aspects of a particular subject. For example, students spent seven weeks studying "Maus", Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about a Holocaust survivor and his family. The book prompted lessons not only in literature and poetry, but also in film, history, creative writing (students wrote fictional diaries as though they themselves had experienced the Holocaust) and included a trip to the Jewish Heritage Museum in Manhattan.

Another example is a course called French and Philosophy, which expands the boundaries of foreign language study to encompass a world of philosophical ideas and also utilizes art and other disciplines. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art figured prominently in the curriculum this fall.

Curriculum-related field trips are an important component of several courses. Regularly scheduled trips this year range from Macy's in New York City for a behind-the-scenes look at marketing and economics to the Bodies exhibit at South Street Seaport, for explorations in science and art.

Another distinguishing characteristic is that learning is student-driven to a much greater degree than in traditional high school settings. Because of the small numbers, the particular learning styles of the students often determines the pace and direction of lessons. Moreover, elective courses may be shaped to meet the students' individual interests, talents and needs. Current electives range from Heroes and Villains to Positive Psychology and Paramedics (taught by a certified EMT).

The Academy also employs a part-time social worker to address the students' social and emotional development. Students retain their relationship with a Roslyn High School guidance counselor and have access to the high school's support services.

A Distinct Environment

The Academy is housed in a small, two-story building just behind the high school long known as the Home Economics building. (For more than 30 years it was also the home of Building Blocks, a not-for-profit child care program.) The importance of having the students in a separate environment, but close to the high school, is an ideal arrangement. It enables full-time Roslyn High School teachers to spend a part of their day at the Academy, helps the Academy to forge a distinct identity within the larger high school community, but also offers students the opportunity to participate in after-school activities and special events.

The school has three classrooms, including a room for science and art, plus a student lounge/commons, conference room and staff room. Each of the learning spaces serves multiple purposes. Because the building is adjacent to the high school's playing fields, the Academy can also make use of outdoor space. Technology plays a major part in the school's emerging culture: the Academy is wireless just like the high school, and strives to be virtually paperless, with the use of SmartBoards and laptop computers provided for both students and teachers.

Academy at Heights
Academy students visited the Heights School in January where they helped kindergarteners with art and other activities.

Students are eligible to join clubs or other extracurricular programs that don't interfere directly with their school day at the Academy. For example, a number of Academy students are athletes who are currently playing on high school teams. Graduation requirements, such as students' obligation to perform community service, are required of Academy students, as well. "Open campus" rules for Roslyn High School students also apply to the Academy's students. With the exception of eighth graders, they may go out for lunch (their only free period) though they are not permitted to eat lunch in the high school. On most days, about the half of the students choose to stay in for lunch.

Though the Academy is a part of Roslyn High School, and students who graduate will earn a Roslyn High School diploma, members of the faculty emphasize that maintaining a distinct identity for the Academy is critical to the students' sense of "ownership" in the program. This is especially important because one of the factors that affected them negatively in the traditional high school program was, in many cases, a feeling of not belonging. "They really feel that it's theirs," says Kerriann Jannotte, the Academy's one full-time teacher. "The students are so enthusiastic about school, it makes the whole environment a great place to be. I think all of the teachers find it incredibly rewarding to teach here."

Financially Self-Sustaining

While the Hilltop Academy is funded through the regular school budget, it does not in fact cost any additional money. There are two reasons for this: one, because some Roslyn students who would otherwise be placed in alternative programs are now able to remain in Roslyn, thereby saving the district tuition that would have been paid for their outside placements; and two, because students from other districts may enroll in the Academy (provided they meet all of the criteria for admission), thereby generating revenue for the school district in the form of tuition from their home districts. Right now, there are already students in both of these categories at the Academy. As the program grows these numbers will almost certainly increase, so that the Academy's annual budget will be more than covered.

The inclusion of eighth graders makes the program unique among the alternative placements on Long Island. Roslyn administrators have made sure that their counterparts in the region are aware of the Academy's existence, and have even hosted visits by school officials from other districts. This has generated considerable interest, which in time will establish the Academy as a viable alternative program and attract new students on an ongoing basis.

Academy 2
Ms. Jannotte helps lead a class discussion.

It should be noted that most Roslyn students who were already enrolled in alternative settings outside the district, and who have met with success in these programs, will likely remain there. The Academy may provide a better alternative for some, but it is not for everyone. And for those students who have found success in a different learning community, bringing them back to Roslyn could very well be counterproductive.

The Committee

The establishment of the Hilltop Academy was the culmination of a two-year study by members of the Roslyn High School administration and faculty. A committee conducted a comprehensive review of other alternative programs, and made a recommendation to the Board of Education in 2007-08 based on the many educational and financial factors involved in creating and running an alternative high school program. The committee's work established the foundation for the Academy's curriculum, staffing and student placement.

Acceptance & Renewal

Perhaps the most meaningful indicator of how the Academy's students have taken to the program is that they have a nearly 100 percent attendance rate. This is a remarkable turnaround for some of the students, who had serious attendance problems in the past. In fact, chronic absence and lateness, a situation educators sometimes call "school refusal", is a major reason why some of these students and their parents sought alternative placements to begin with. Having teenagers who were seriously averse to school change into serious students who are actively engaged in their studies, and who demonstrate an evident desire to be a part of their learning community, is why the Hilltop Academy was created.

For more information about the Roslyn Hilltop Academy, please contact Roslyn High School Assistant Principal Jay Pilnick at 516-801-5100 or email him at

January, 2009