Since the opening of Columbia Secondary School in fall 2007, Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera has immersed himself in education, spending 12 to 14 hours a day pushing students to succeed and providing support for teachers. In the little spare time that remains, he works on his book about public versus private school startups, and teaches a course at Columbia College. Then there’s the occasional substitute teaching; due to budget cuts, Maldonado-Rivera would rather cover a class himself than pay for a substitute.
“I can learn along with them and teach them at the same time,” he said. “If you don’t love them [your students], it’s not going to work. They need to feel like you care about them and about their future so much that they can trust you.”
Born and raised on a farm in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, Maldonado-Rivera, 47, attended an elite public school that had a partnership with the University of Puerto Rico. Maldonado-Rivera went on to earn two Ph.D.s—one in ecology and evolution at University of California Santa Barbara, and the other in science education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.
In 2006, he was tapped by the city and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to create the Columbia Secondary School, a world-class secondary school that serves high-achieving minority students in Upper Manhattan. Foregoing a cushier job at an international private school that he helped create in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Maldonado-Rivera decided to return to a long term goal of his: providing underprivileged students with a world-class education.
In just three years, Maldonado-Rivera helped create a top-ranking public school that has a 7 percent acceptance rate. More than half of the middle schoolers come from low-income families, but 96 percent of students scored a 3 or a 4 on the 6th grade English Language Arts exam in 2007-2008, and 99 percent of 6th graders scored a 3 or a 4 on the math exam that same year.
Included in Columbia Secondary School’s rich curriculum is “J-term,” a June mini-semester that involves adventurous learning experiences at home or abroad, including a popular biodiversity trip to Puerto Rico with Maldonado-Rivera.
The school offers more than 50 enrichment courses, ranging from Egyptian art to genetics to bioethics.
“Middle school is where the fork occurs,” Maldonado-Rivera said. “If you’re going to hook them, it’s going to occur then. If you don’t, you have lost the battle.”
Teachers, parents and students all praise Maldonado-Rivera for revolutionizing the standard middle school curriculum.
“He was able to verbalize his vision,” said Beth Fidoten, mother of 8th grader Jacob Fidoten. “You have to have the vision but also the leadership to see it though. Principal Maldonado has both to galvanize a community and make it happen.”
Eighth grader Antonio Taveras’s favorite elective is Maldonado-Rivera’s course on marine biology. Though strict, “he is really good about using his sense of humor in class,” Taveras said.
Marianthi Markatou, a Columbia University biostatistics professor, took her daughter, Lilly Talal, out of a nearby private school so she could attend Columbia Secondary School in 6th grade. The reason was simple.
“Maldonado’s vision and passion for teaching,” she said, “is contagious.”
— Aline Reynolds
Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera,
Columbia Secondary School
425 W. 123rd St.
New York, N.Y. 10027
Above: Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera leads one of the most popular “J-term” projects at Columbia Secondary: a biodiversity trip to Puerto Rico. Photo by Andrew Schwartz