One early Saturday, a group of more than a dozen alumni gathered in front of 48-01 90th Street, the site of landmarked Newtown High School, known for its iconic tower. The tour, organized by Linus Ly (‘85), felt like a homecoming to the participants, greeted by longtime principal John Ficolara, who was flanked by two student guides. Mr. Ficolara (‘68), a Corona native, has almost achieved a mythic being status, as he’s served at Newtown now for 50 years, first as a math teacher, then as principal for the last 30 years. He attributes his staying power to effectively adapting to changing times, and being receptive to the needs of the student population, while most other schools have gone through a succession of leadership positions. Mr. Ficolara, affable and enthusiastic, led the group inside where the lobby plaques were explained in detail, war memorials, honor roll recipients, as well as the many Newtown Alumni who have achieved a level of fame. The original building, he emphasized, was conceived back in 1897, but was built in five phases, with renovations and more construction occurring in 1917-1918, and most notably in 1922 when the tower was added, with more additions during 1930-1931 and 1956-1958.
Attendees remarked at how, although much of Elmhurst has changed, the grandeur and distinction of the school hasn’t changed; a source of pride for residents who may take it for granted when passing daily, but a breathtaking view for tourists and newcomers alike. The hallways, too, seemed to evoke the residue of student years, as many of the classroom doors seemed unchanged, on the stroll to the principal’s office. Here, Mr. Ficolara showed off some artwork done or donated by Alumni, a mini scale version of Newtown H.S. in a clear display case, and an antique grandfather clock, manufactured in Germany, gifted to the school in 1931. He also told of Newtown’s beginnings as an agricultural program, which was transferred to John Bowne H.S. in 1964. The shop classes have also been discontinued, replaced by computer labs, which can simulate the physical aspects done in those courses.
He explained former Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to close 22 schools; Newtown being one of them, to be divided into specialized schools. The courts denied Bloomberg’s request, although at the time, every other principal was replaced except two, including Mr. Ficolara. Another proposal, a Pre-K school to be built on a portion of Newtown Field by the tennis and handball courts, initiated by former Mayor de Blasio, was also rebuffed. Newtown does, however, now share the school with an international high school of health which occupies the fourth floor. Mr. Ficolara also stressed school safety, freedom of expression, and how the school has fewer discipline issues than ever, with the school’s graduation rate at about 80%. He also cited the return from the pandemic as a memorable time of welcoming back the students, with the students themselves relieved to return. Before heading up to the tower, Mr. Ficolara concluded his role in the tour by fielding questions in the library about a host of former teachers. He also lamented the loss of the original fireplace which was accidentally destroyed by workers during a renovation, but promised that an exact replica would be installed. The tower itself, the roof, the fully clouded blue sky, and fresh air provided the culmination of the tour.
Some of the tour participants shared their feelings about the experience, and what it meant for them to reconnect with the Newtown community.
Jimmy Araujo (80’) said, “I went on the tour for simple nostalgic reasons. I had not been inside since graduating in 1980, and had been eager to see the inside again. I was very glad to see Mr. Ficolara, who was one of my math teachers. From the tower roof, the views were glorious. It’s nice to see the building being treated and maintained lovingly. With time, I’ve come to appreciate any building with history and visiting Newtown did not disappoint. It was good for the soul to reconnect with a piece of the past.”
“I was mostly surprised by how much things didn’t change. For me, it’s over 50 years, and many things like the hall clocks, the Art Dept, classroom door, the music room in the tower, and more did not seem any different. That was a great feeling to see it left all the same, and functioning properly now as it was then. It was wonderful for the principal to spend time with us,” said Rene Clement (69’).
Anne Marie Roberts Appel (69’) said, “I loved seeing the tower which I had never done before. I had good memories of Newtown, and the people I met there. I like going to the Applebee’s reunions and talking about the school. The teachers and especially the principal make the school. I believe the ratings are higher due to the leadership of Mr. John Ficolara. He is obviously full of energy, loves his job, and his enthusiasm transfers to the students.”
“I have always had fond memories of my high school years at Newtown. I have wanted to revisit the old neighborhood, and was thrilled when I saw the post about the availability of this tour. Reconnecting with Newtown and Elmhurst is beyond Nostalgic! I owe so much to Newtown for the support received during my teenage years to shape the person I became. The entire tour conducted by the incomparable Mr. Ficolara and the student volunteers was simply magical! So many memories came rushing back as we walked those hallways together,” said Gita Kalra Sharma (87’).
Arnold Gallardo (86’) said, “What impressed me most about the guided tour was the presence of current students to show the school has changed a lot as well as remained the same in many places. It felt like going back in time for some places, especially the gym, which remains exactly the same. I had flashbacks looking into some rooms like the science room, the art room, as well as the guidance counselors room.”
As mentioned, the tour’s organizer was Linus Ly (85’). He is the Administrator of the “Facebook page Newtown High School Elmhurst, New York Alumni,” and suggests joining the page to find out about any upcoming events, reunions, tours, and the informal Applebee’s Queens Center all grade meetups which happen once or twice a year and began about a decade ago. The only requirement for tours, reunions, or joining the page is that one must be a graduate of Newtown High School.
Maria Garcia (71’), who has attended some of the Applebee’s reunions said, “I like meeting new people who lived where I grew up. I also hope to see someone who I may have known back when I was in H.S, and what they are doing now. I still have family in Elmhurst/Jackson Heights, and I like to know what’s going on in the area. No matter where I live now, I still consider this area my community.”