Stuyvesant students speak up

Photo: Brian Demo

News that just seven out of 895 spots in New York’s most elite high school went to black students drew a reaction from teens who already attend

By Brian Demo

Lower Manhattan was sunny and cold on March 19 as students from Stuyvesant High School emerged from the Tribeca Bridge tunnel — which they cross to get in and out of school — to grab lunch between classes. Some walked calmly out of the tunnel, others looked exhausted. Still others came out excited, like Andy Dufresne escaping Shawshank, to dart for a food truck or the nearby Chipotle. Most were white or Asian-American. The day before, the New York Times had published an article titled, “Only 7 Black Students Got Into Stuyvesant, N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.”

With the exception of Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, admission to New York City’s prestigious specialized high schools (SHS), including Stuyvesant, is based solely on how well a student does on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). According to 2017-2018 data from the NYC Department of Education (DOE), Stuyvesant’s student population was 73.5 percent Asian-American, 17.8 percent white, 2.8 percent Hispanic and 0.7 percent black.

Caught in a Controversy

Some of those students responded to the controversial news about their school in sidewalk interviews last week. One of them, a ninth grader, said he was born in the United States to a father from the Dominican Republic and an African-American mother. He made the point that different students have different preferences in schools, and the schools don’t control those choices. “If a lot of Asian-American students want to come to Stuyvesant, they can come,” he said “If a lot of African-American students want to go to Brooklyn Tech, they can go to Brooklyn Tech.” According to the DOE data, black students made up 6.4 percent of the student body at Brooklyn Technical High School, another SHS

A Stuyvesant tenth grader, with a mother from Poland and father from the United Kingdom, echoed that opinion. She said that her little sister, currently in eighth grade, preferred the High School of American Studies at Lehman College over Stuyvesant. “Just because Stuy is the most selective, doesn’t mean that everyone wants to go there. It’s not the school for everyone.”

An eleventh grader from downtown Manhattan said that people have to remember that lower income households exist throughout different ethnic groups. The student said her mother came to the U.S. from Vietnam and her father was born in New York City. Some Asians, she said, have parents who “had to escape from wars,” including her mother. Many Asian parents, she added, emphasize the importance of working hard in school to have a better life, and send their kids to special courses to prepare them the SHSAT and SAT. She also said she suspects that some Asian parents actually choose to eat less in order to help fund their children’s ambitious study schedules.

Another Stuyvesant tenth grader, who was born in the U.S. to Polish immigrants and lives in Queens, emphasized how hard some students prep for the SHSAT, and shared his own experiences. He believes there should be some baseline metric, rather than a greater focus on diversity. “The lack of diversity, it’s just something that we don’t agree with, especially because we spend years studying for this test. I spent two years probably, and my summer too. So I have a personal connection with the test.”

Concerns About a Mayor’s Plan

Mayor de Blasio and DOE Chancellor Richard A. Carranza announced a plan in June 2018 to boost diversity in the SHSs through the Discovery program and by eliminating “the use of the single-admissions test over three years,” according to the DOE website. The Discovery program targets students whose SHSAT scores fall just short of the cutoff score and involves setting aside 20 percent of seats at each SHS, which the website said would almost double the number of black and Latino students receiving admissions offers. According to the plan, after the SHSAT is phased out, the SHSs would “reserve seats for top performers at each New York City middle school.” City models project increases in female students and additional increases among black and Latino students. The plan to eliminate the test, however, would require New York State legislation.

A Stuyvesant ninth grader, born in the U.S. to Bangladeshi immigrants, is no fan of the planned changes. “I think de Blasio’s method isn’t really that moral or fair, because he’s too focused on getting certain races into high schools,” he said.

The eleventh-grader from downtown Manhattan was hesitant to suggest policy solutions. “I’m really young,” she said. “I don’t want to say something when I don’t fully understand what each group is going through.” She supports diversity overall, and said that being among a diverse group of people makes individuals more aware.

The Queens tenth-grader said he supports any student working to be their best, but expressed concern about Stuyvesant’s reputation for academic rigor, should the SHSAT be altered or eliminated from the admissions process. “The entire point of Stuyvesant is that it’s supposed to be super selective ... If you get rid of this exam, I guess it just becomes like a regular high school.”