During the winter of 2013, we received our early college-application results. Fall of senior year up until the first of the new year had been a stressful and anxiety-filled time, as seniors completed applications hoping they would receive acceptance into at least one of their top college choices. When the rejections came, so did the ignorant comments. One of my classmates lamented, “This was the year of the minorities and women” to me and another student after he had been denied acceptance by his dream school. In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel like my own merit was being questioned as both a minority and woman who had just received acceptance into Harvard University.
This questioning did not end as the year continued. From overhearing students doubting that another black student deserved admission to Yale to having friends tell me that students were questioning my acceptance as well, I was beyond frustrated with the Bronx High School of Science and more than ready to graduate. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.
That spring, new Mayor de Blasio announced his plan to change the admission process of specialized high schools. A few months before, an anonymous confessions page for my high school formed online. While seemingly two unrelated events, the page was soon flooded with anonymous confessions—often beginning with “I’m not racist, but”—that expressed disapproval of de Blasio’s plan to remove the SHSAT, the standardized test for admission into the specialized high schools.
What my peer’s comments more or less amounted to was this: Black and Latinx students, who were underrepresented, did not get into these schools because they were not as hard-working and smart as their peers.
Four years later, these conversations around the SHSAT haven’t ended. Recently, de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza unveiled two new proposals. One, which will start next fall, will set aside 20 percent of seats for low-income students who were just below the cutoff and have them attend a Discovery program over the summer before beginning school. The second proposal, which requires approval by the State Senate in Albany, would fill 90 to 95 percent of the specialized-high-school seats with the top 7 percent from public middle schools. The other 5 to 10 percent would be filled with newcomers to NYC, private-school students, and students who did not meet the 7 percent cutoff. These proposals have elicited fierce opposition from the affected schools, their alumni groups, and parents.
“The test is the most unbiased way to get into a school,” Peter Koo, a City Council member in Queens, told The New York Times. “It doesn’t require an interview. It doesn’t require a résumé. It doesn’t even require connections. The mayor’s son just graduated from Brooklyn Tech and got into Yale. Now he wants to stop this and build a barrier to Asian-Americans—especially our children.” Ivy Hamlin, the parent of students who have attended specialized high schools, wrote to the Times: “Asians don’t ‘own’ their admissions, nor do they claim to. No, Asian students achieve all those admissions with hard work and dedicated preparation for the test. Some may not like the outcome of the test, but it is fair and it is objective.” The general tenor of these complaints revealed that parents were worried that, through this proposal, the very purpose of these schools—to be elite schools of academic rigor—will be diminished. In early June, various Asian-American groups, parents, and alumni protested de Blasio’s plans, accusing him of racism and penalizing poor Asian immigrants and their families.
While black and Latinx students comprise 67 percent of the student population in New York City, they only make up 10 percent of those accepted to these elite high schools. When year after year articles are written citing how less than one percent of black students are accepted to Stuyvesant High School, it is no wonder that the mayor wants to change the admission rates.
But as a black and Latinx alumna of one of these schools, I cannot help but feel his proposal is inadequate in addressing the full concerns of the black and Latinx student population. While Bronx Science was, undoubtedly, a great school academically and helped me gain admission into Harvard, being one of the few black students was not a great experience. After I was accepted into Harvard, I quickly found my intellect and hard work questioned. Being one of the few, and sometimes the only, black student in your class is isolating. Every year, that awkward moment in history class would inevitably come around after slavery was brought up, and the non-black students start to glance your way, as if you are some fragile thing that is going to break, and they take you into consideration as a spokesperson for your race. Sitting in your English class and hearing a student stop while reading aloud, because he doesn’t know if he can say the world “black,” causes you to question what could be so bad about that word that describes your very identity.
In my junior year, affirmative action became a major conversation. Students told me I didn’t have much to worry about with college admissions, and that I had “double the advantage” as a black Latina. Between oftentimes being the only black student, dealing with these microaggressions targeted at my intellect, and not seeing many, if any, black teachers or staff outside of custodial and the lunch ladies, my time there contributed to the growing imposter syndrome and self-esteem issues I would feel at Harvard.
“As a black student at Brooklyn Tech you can easily feel like a fish out of water,” Matthew Holliday, a 2015 alumnus of Brooklyn Technical High School, told me. “As a first-year student I felt very visible, assumptions were made about me by many of my non-black POC peers leading to constant microaggressions and blatant racism.” While much of the conversation has focused on whether or not these black and Latinx students who did not gain acceptance could handle the academic rigor of Bronx Science, we must ask whether these schools are even built for black and Latinx students in the first place. Are these schools prepared to create an environment where black and Latinx students not only feel welcomed but also supported?
I am not alone in feeling that the mayor’s proposals are inadequate solutions to the problem of diversity.
“Why aren’t we focusing on improving elementary-and middle-school education in low-income areas so that they can have the abilities to perform well on the test?” Mirielle Wright, a 2017 black alumnus of Brooklyn Latin High School, asked me. While the specialized high schools do need reform, the rest of the public schools in New York City deserve to be reformed so lower-income students are not forced to choose between attending one of the eight elite schools or nothing else. Josue Mendez, a 2014 Latino alumnus of the Bronx High School of Science, said that while he was indifferent to the changes, he couldn’t “deny being happy that something is at least being done about this.”
“I don’t believe the issue lies within the exam itself, however, but the living and education conditions of Hispanics and blacks around NYC,” he told me. “A majority of minorities live in low-income areas where paying for a decent SHSAT-tutoring program is just way too out of their budget.” Lower-income students shouldn’t have to feel that they are choosing between success or failure when choosing between specialized high schools and other local high schools.
While I applaud Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza, along with the Department of Education, for wanting to improve diversity within schools, they are missing some rather large pieces of the puzzle. These schools must become supportive and encouraging environments for these students to ensure that students receive all the tools for success needed to perform well academically. A more diverse teaching staff is an absolute necessity. There should be no reason that I can barely recall a black teacher during my time at Bronx Science. Mirielle, for example, noted the positive impact her teachers had on her experience. “Our teachers were conscious of the environment in which they were teaching, were incredibly knowledgeable about issues relating to black and Latinx people, and consistently humbled themselves in the moments in which they were wrong,” she told me. “Despite the few and far between microaggressions, students also followed their example and fostered an environment of inclusion.”
Tara-Marie Desruisseax, a 2013 black alumnus of the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, also said that there was a need for more teachers of color. “The black and Latinx students should feel comfortable at their schools so that they want to stay and so that they do well,” she told me. “In order for them to academically succeed, their mental health is also important,” she noted.
This means prioritizing these students and speaking to them about what they want. “Following these proposed changes, there will still be work to do in order to make sure black and Latinx students are both visible and included in specialized high schools,” Matthew said.“This may include speaking to black and Latinx students about how they are feeling, what changes they would like to see internally, and then devising some type of strategy to celebrate underrepresented cultures more.” Why are we losing the voices of the students who are directly impacted by these proposals within this conversation?
It is obvious that the public-education system throughout New York City must be improved so that students are given the tools needed to thrive. There needs to be more access to test-prep programs for middle-school students, better resources at elementary, middle, and high schools, and the city needs to give these schools the attention and support they need to thrive overall.
But among the discussion around these proposed changes, there has been the implicit statement that not only are black and Latinx students not qualified for these schools, they are also not able to handle the workload—which is just false. The disparities in education between black and Latinx students and white and Asian students are not inextricably linked to their race or ethnicity.
Your racial or ethnic makeup does not determine how intelligent you are. It does, however, determine what resources you are able to access to excel. While hard work is great and noteworthy, hard work will get you nowhere if the right doors aren’t open. In this case, the doors are closed shut for many black and Latinx students unless they are able to access the keys.
“If one feels threatened by these proposed changes, it shows one’s own elitism and need for hierarchical power through an exam that was never equal,” Matthew said. “We all know that black and Latinx middle schools are underfunded, but has anyone actively done anything about it? No, stating the obvious will not fix the problem, and it will not erase the fact that standardized tests are biased.”
So why not start by giving these students the keys they need to unlock the doors to their success?