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Big Fish Seeks Larger Pond
Kids at Stuyvesant get everything I wished for
Marco Salazar

I was starting 8th grade when my teacher mentioned the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). She explained to my class that the “specialized high schools”—including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science—are some of the best public schools in New York City. They offer admission only to students who get high scores on an entrance exam, which consists of timed reading and math sections, much like the PSAT.

The class buzzed with excitement. A few of my classmates had heard rumors about these well-known schools. “Stuyvesant has escalators,” someone said.

“Wow, escalators!?” I thought. But before I could get too worked up, the teacher brought us back to reality.

“The exam is in November,” she said.

It was already September, so we had barely two months to prepare. It didn’t seem like enough time.

Ready or Not

One of my classmates knew all about the exam. “I already have a tutor helping me,” she said. This sounded promising, so I went home that day and asked my parents if they could get me a tutor, too. They said they couldn’t afford one. I knew the SHSAT would be extremely competitive, but when my parents said that it didn’t matter which high school I went to, I figured I’d give it a shot and not stress if I didn’t get in.

Still, I wanted to do well—but as the test approached, I wasn’t feeling confident. Along with my classmates who were planning to take the test, I spent an hour and a half each day after school doing prep work with a teacher. We practiced and practiced, but I felt I needed more time. We were covering material I’d never seen before, and I wasn’t scoring well on the practice tests. Unfortunately, the test date was set in stone.

On that day, a Saturday, I woke up at 6 a.m. to eat breakfast and run some practice problems to ensure that I was wide awake. When I arrived at the test site, Brooklyn Tech, hundreds of students were already swarming around the building. I nervously climbed the stairs, with the school’s current students leading the way.

“They’re all Asian. I’m probably not good enough to get in,” I remember thinking. I believed that Asians were really smart because of stereotypes I’d heard, though I’d never had a class with one. I didn’t see any other Hispanics among the Brooklyn Tech students, and that intimidated me.

Missing the Cut

My confidence plummeted further when I glanced at the high number on the test booklet. The whole city seemed to be taking this exam—and, judging by the calm-looking students sitting near me, they were all better prepared than I was.

I struggled through, barely finishing. Afterward, I tried to put the test out of my mind. Months later, the results arrived at my school. I’d scored a 460 out of 800—not enough to get into Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant, the two schools I’d listed on my form. Most of my classmates had scores in the 300s, including the girl with the tutor. Only one person from my middle school got in, and he had a near-perfect score, enough to go to the school of his choice.

I was a little disappointed, but not too upset. My parents enrolled me at the school closest to where we live, despite its low test scores and mediocre graduation rate. My parents and I knew about those figures, but we didn’t realize how much they revealed about the quality of education a school provides. However, once classes started, I quickly got the picture.

Making Do on My Own

My school struggled to afford textbooks, and often two or more students would be left to share one between us. Our classrooms were overcrowded to the point where some of us had to stand, or sit on desks. The Department of Education’s website for my school claims that my school offers seven AP classes, but in fact there are only two—English and Spanish. There are only two after-school clubs: the Human Rights club and the African-American club, both run by teachers.

I didn’t let my school restrict my intellectual growth. I turned to the Internet for information; I learned to program and to do graphic design and Web design. I became familiar with various types of programming languages and later I joined the staff of YCteen (formerly New Youth Connections) to improve my writing.

However, there was only so much I could do on my own. I couldn’t change the fact that I could take a Regents exam only when my school said I could. I had to stay in painfully slow classes to earn necessary credits, because the school wasn’t going to offer more challenging classes for just one or two students who wanted them.

I remember my frustration in 10th grade when my teacher said that he was adding another semester to our geometry class; I felt ready to ace the final. But my teacher said that even if I did, the school had nowhere else to place me, so I’d be stuck taking the class for an extra semester regardless.

A Math and Science Summer

In 11th grade, I told my guidance counselor that I was worried about my chances of college acceptance because I hadn’t been able to take difficult classes. She recommended the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Institute, a summer program for minority, female, and low-income students, which she said would challenge me. The program required a minimum 3.5 GPA and recommendations from my math and science teachers.

I applied in February, and two months later was notified of my acceptance. I took a placement examination that landed me in the program’s advanced chemistry and pre-calculus classes.

The six-week program started immediately after finals ended in June. My commute to City College, where it was held, meant getting up at 6 a.m. Spending my summer this way seemed crazy to my friends, but to me it was an opportunity to learn more and bolster my résumé, and I wouldn’t let it pass me by.

The Weakest Link

On the first day I only recognized one face—a junior high classmate who had been accepted to LaGuardia High School (a specialized high school, but the only one that doesn’t have an entrance exam—students do an audition instead). In my morning chemistry class, the instructor asked each of us where we went to school. As he went around, I heard the names of those schools I’d tried to get into back in 8th grade, along with others, like Hunter and Townsend Harris, known to have rigorous academic programs. When my turn came up I said, “EBC.”

image by Axel Almendarez

“Who?” the teacher responded.

I began to melt: Everyone was staring at me and it became clear that I was the weakest link. Not only did I not go to a reputable school, I had also just found out that I was a year or two older than everyone else, making it seem as though I wasn’t as smart as they were.

The teacher gave us a quiz to determine our skill level. To my relief I knew everything on it, but then he began testing us out loud. Everyone in the class tensely threw out answers, all of us competing to show off our knowledge of chemistry (and SAT words).

Seeing that I wasn’t at the top here like I was in my own school, I felt intimidated. When lunch hour came around, I made my way outside and walked around alone. I was the only one without any friends in the program and I felt like a reject.

In my afternoon pre-calculus class, the teacher once again had never heard of my school. By this time I wasn’t surprised. Who would hear about a school with a 62% graduation rate, a school where many students take Regents exams two or three times before barely passing?

Haves and Have-Nots

Thankfully, about a week into the program, my chemistry teacher rearranged our seats. He then gave us a group lab, and alas, I was forced to interact with others. To my surprise my peers were actually friendly. I quickly became friends with a group of people who were also in my pre-calc class.

Soon I felt less intimidated—and more envious. As I talked more to my new friends, I found out that their schools had everything mine lacked. For one thing, they were offered many electives (subjects like forensics, engineering, and general electricity). They also had real labs and lab equipment, while in my school the lab teacher hands out a lab assignment with the answers already on it, because we don’t have the materials to conduct the actual experiment. They could join a wide range of clubs run by students, not teachers, meaning there were opportunities to get leadership experience that looked good on their résumés.

I began to look down on my school. It was unfair that I had to go without so many things these kids took for granted. I wished that my parents had known about the SHSAT when I entered junior high. One day I asked a friend at STEM how she’d prepared for the test, and she said that her parents paid for her to be in a prep course for two years. Another friend said his parents made him study every day for two years. They’d had an edge that I didn’t have, just by knowing about the exam in advance.

What Might Have Been

Things might have gone differently, too, if my parents or I had understood how significant the gap was between ordinary and specialized high schools. I would have listed all the specialized high schools on my SHSAT form—not just Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. My score was high enough to get me into some of those other schools, but when I completed the form, I thought the commute to other schools would be too long.

After talking to my friends at STEM, I felt the commute would have been more than compensated for by a better education. I might have spent my high school years conducting real labs, or taken an elective that steered my ambition in new directions.

I’d done well in high school, but I worried that a better school would have prepared me more to get into, and succeed at, a good college. My school never emphasized extracurricular activities, and didn’t offer the difficult classes that colleges like to see. On top of that, with so few AP offerings, I couldn’t earn many college credits, which would have saved me money and time in college. It seemed ironic that because I come from a school in a low-income area, I might wind up paying more.

Second Thoughts

For months after my STEM experience I felt cheated out of my potential, as I thought about what high school was for me compared to what it could have been. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I started receiving college acceptances.

I got into all of the schools I applied to, including my dream school, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s been a few years since anyone from my school was accepted to a top university like MIT, so everyone made a big deal about it. My friends rushed to tell my teachers, one of my teachers wanted to frame my acceptance letter, and it was even announced over the loudspeaker.

This reflects one aspect of my school that I’m grateful for: its strong sense of community. Teachers and counselors go out of their way to help students, and it’s easy to feel accepted. According to an essay by a Stuyvesant graduate that I found on the MIT blog, his high school wasn’t very welcoming and he felt self-conscious about his low-income status.

Maybe I would have felt similarly had I gone to Stuyvesant. More important, because Stuyvesant has many more opportunities and resources than my school, it may have been harder for me to get into MIT if I’d gone there—since one of the things that made my application stand out was my willingness to go beyond school and find outside resources.

Making It Fairer

However, I still believe the competition at a better high school would have pushed me to learn and accomplish more. I contacted the Department of Education to ask whether efforts are in place to make specialized high schools accessible to more of the city’s top students, and I learned that they are.

For example, the Specialized High School Institute (SHSI) is a 16-month extracurricular program that prepares talented, low-income middle school students to take the SHSAT. (About three percent of students who took the SHSAT last fall had participated in SHSI. In the most recent school year, about four in ten test takers who participated in SHSI got offers from specialized high schools.)

There’s also Summer Discovery, a summer course for low-income kids who took the SHSAT and narrowly missed the cut. If they successfully complete the program, they are admitted to a specialized high school. Finally, I was given a list of steps the department has taken to spread the word about the SHSAT in low-income communities (for example, they have held parent workshops in communities with low numbers of kids taking the SHSAT).

Wasted Potential

I’m sure some of these efforts work—after all, many of my peers in the STEM program were low-income Hispanics like me, and they got the information they needed in time to prepare well for the SHSAT. But overall, the statistics make clear that the whole system of specialized high school admissions widens racial disparities. Though blacks and Hispanics made up 45% of SHSAT test-takers this year, they represented only 10% of those who got offers to attend a specialized high school next fall. And the proportion of blacks and Hispanics in specialized high schools has actually been falling for the last ten years, despite long-running programs like SHSI and Summer Discovery.

Something should change. One solution I’ve heard is to add interviews and portfolio evaluations to the admissions process. But that doesn’t solve the main problem: the fact that students with better-educated parents, more financial resources, and better elementary schools have an unfair advantage. A more effective solution might be to offer admission to top-performing students in each school or each zip code. That way, students would compete with others who come from roughly the same background, which seems fair to me.

By whatever means, the Department of Education should see to it that a good educational experience is available to all who are willing to put in the effort. I ameliorated my situation as much as possible, and I learned that sometimes you have to pave your own path, a valuable lesson. But I know that for every good student who succeeds at a mediocre school, there are many others with potential who wind up on the wrong track, in the dust.

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