Students leaving Stuyvesant High School in New York City. They are admitted based on their score on a single 150-minute test. Bebeto Matthews/AP

The Fight to Integrate New York City’s Specialized Schools Is Misguided

It affirms a supremacist mentality. I thought we were done propping that up.

This weekend, nearly 30,000 eighth graders in New York City will take the Specialized High School Admission test (SHSAT). About 5,000 of them will score high enough to get an offer to attend one of eight of the city’s prestigious specialized high schools.

When the classes are compiled, the demographics at these schools do not resemble New York City, and they certainly do not mirror the demographics of its public-school students. The three schools that serve the bulk of SHSAT-admitted specialized high-school students have populations that are disproportionately Asian, white, and male.

For 50 years, admission to this trio (The Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical high schools) has been determined by this test. The five other specialized schools were created in the 2000s; together, these eight institutions serve about 6 percent of the city’s high school population. There’s been a fierce debate locally about whether the specialized schools should look more like the city’s general population, and if you agree with that (some don’t), how to accomplish that.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his own plan to diversify them, which involves admitting the top students from every city middle school, and expanding the 50-year-old Discovery program, which is designed to prepare low-income students to gain admission. (So far, that program has primarily benefitted low-income Asian and white students). Some have pushed back, arguing that such reforms will unfairly penalize Asian students, and that the schools will change if admission methods are altered.

But there is a disturbing acceptance by all sides in this debate that there is one form of success and achievement, of happiness and fulfillment—that there is a “best” defined by a conventional measure. Admission to these schools unlocks it, and we all want it, or should.

The people fighting both for and against these changes believe that the children who attend these schools will move ahead of all other kids in the city’s 500 or so other high schools—many of which also have extremely selective admissions—on the path to riches, prestige, and success.

I can’t get behind this: It affirms a supremacist mentality. I thought we were done propping that up.

***

As a New York City parent and a journalist, I have been closely following this debate, and many studies about the systemic exclusion from success, and a good life, for blacks and Latinos in the United States. The people who fight to change the admissions believe they are fighting for the cause of black and brown children, including my 9-year old daughter. In reading these debates and studies, I’ve learned a few things. First and foremost: I am a failure, and I am setting my daughter up to be a failure.

I was one of the 38 percent of black children born in American between 1958 and 1970 who did not grow up in a neighborhood with more than 20 percent of families living in poverty—in my mostly black neighborhood the poverty rate was a little over 5 percent. (Translation: I was a childhood geographical “winner.”) My husband, daughter, and I now live in Central Harlem, an upper Manhattan neighborhood with about a 30 percent poverty rate, which is defined as a “high-poverty area.” (My daughter is a childhood geographical “loser.”)

Just by living in this neighborhood—one which has about the same ratio of blacks and whites as the one I grew up in—I’ve knocked two points off my daughter’s IQ score, as a cute little graphic in this Vox article shows.

Oh, wait: There was a murder within seven blocks of our home. This same article relies on NYU research to tell me that my choice of apartment knocked seven more points off my daughter’s IQ. (Although I do wonder if there is a neighborhood anywhere in Manhattan where there hasn’t been a murder within seven blocks during a five-year period.)

In other words, I started off strong as a child but I am a failure who is failing my daughter, and here’s the kicker: Despite the studies that tell me that I live here because racism did the dirty to me, I claim agency in this. I chose it all. I chose not to have my daughter tested to enter kindergarten in the gifted and talented programs that feed to specialized high schools. Nor do I want her to attend a specialized high school. I am choosing for my daughter to be “left behind.”

With her father, I made these choices in location and education because we find beauty and value in our neighborhood, and reward in schools where students leave with a broad idea of what achievement looks like, an expansive idea of the path to happiness, success, societal contribution, and fulfillment—and the capacity to choose their path.

Others don’t have my qualms: These new efforts at integrating the specialized schools have drawn ire from parents who think their children will lose their places to students who aren’t as “qualified,” and support from institutions like the New York Times Editorial Board, which penned an editorial titled: “It’s Time to Integrate New York’s Best Schools.” That headline lays open what isn’t sitting quite right with me: Who says these are the best schools? They are certainly designed for children who want (or whose parents want them) to work very, very, hard at a particular type of academic achievement, or for children who take this one test well.

The Times offers a few clues to the criteria they use. “These schools have a vital mission, to challenge the city’s sharpest young minds.” Referring to the criticism of the mayor’s plan from alumni, the op-ed concludes that “the very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school.”

The first criterion I understand but disagree with; the second makes little sense. Passion about changing admissions indicates that it is such a formative experience? I think it’s more that admission confers bragging rights, something very important in highly competitive New York City.

That editorial does what the Times gamely does in almost all articles about New York City public education—cites the ills of segregation for black and brown students, and usually as an afterthought, others. But it also affirms a very narrow definition of success, quality, and contentment, a trap that catches so many who advocate for “disenfranchised” black and brown people.

“They all but shut out black and Latino students,” the article states, “leaving untold numbers of New York’s brightest children behind.” The Times seems to know who is “bright” and who isn’t: Like the SHSAT, they feel confident this can be assessed. And where is this “behind?” Those “shut out” students are left to attend many other good schools in New York. “Behind” implies that the specialized high schools are in front, and that schools that don’t earn that honorific by choosing a student body based on that narrow form of achievement are lesser.

Let’s dial back a bit. As I said, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, but I didn’t mention that it was in Jackson, Mississippi, 1972 to ’87. I fully understand that my parents—first-generation college attendees—gave me choice. My background and private-college degree helped open up a world of opportunity. I was able to choose a rewarding but not well-remunerated (compared to working graduates of a university like mine) job. I was able to choose where I lived, and I knew I didn’t want to live in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighborhood, whether it was mostly white or brown, or Asian. I chose my neighborhood because of its mixed-up income and mixed-up races.

So why do so many people who lament what is called white supremacy—and who hate the fact that it is guarded so jealously—reaffirm its values? Our lives are diminished because we are “shut out” of specialized high schools; our lives are limited because we live in majority black and brown neighborhoods. Our proximity to too many poor people, after having started life in middle-class communities, is evidence of slippage.

Until I read all of these school debates and articles about the drawbacks of my area, I was happy and pleased with the life I was providing my child. I thought that, through her neighborhood and education, she’d have what I had wanted from mine: familiarity, ease, and appreciation of an incredibly wide range of people; capacity for hard work; intellectual and moral rigor; and a desire to do something good in the world. But to academics and reporters, black, white, Latino, etc., my child and I are tragic: We are black American retrogression.

I see it differently; I know how edifying the diversity of my high-poverty neighborhood is, and how much joy and pleasure many of us, poor to rich, find in it. And, as someone who attended a mostly white, tested-admission primary and secondary school and a selective college, I know that succeeding at these institutions did not necessarily translate to happiness and fulfillment for people—black, Asian, white, Latino, other. Sometimes—no, oft-times—their experience and the life these institutions funneled them to made them overly stressed, overworked, and worse. I cannot presume to tell anyone what all black children, girls or boys, need (as was aptly pointed out by Kwame Anthony Appiah). I can only tell you what I want for my child, and even she might (and will likely) disagree with me.

***

Jason Warwin, a New Yorker who came through the New York City public school system, graduated from Central Park East Secondary School, a small progressive 7-12 school in East Harlem. I met him while fighting to preserve my daughter’s progressive public elementary school when the New York City Department of Education was insisting that a more rigid form of education was the only one suitable for brown children in Harlem.

Warwin recalls being set extra work at Central Park East Secondary and being annoyed sometimes when he was asked to work with other students to teach them something he had already mastered. But it didn’t take him long to appreciate what the teachers and administration wanted him to realize.

“You see that there are multiple forms of intelligence,” he told me. “It forced me to integrate with other people. It’s not just racial; it’s not just gender: A classroom of kids who have a diverse background of skills and attributes is valuable.”

Warwin went on to an Ivy League university, Brown, where he met a fellow student from New York City, Khary Lazarre-White. As undergrads, they created an organization they still direct called Brotherhood Sister Sol, a mentoring, academic, and social support organization primarily for black and brown students in Harlem. When we spoke this fall, Warwin was only slightly aware of the current demographics of the specialized schools. I can only guess that this is because it is marginal to his students’ experience, and to what he hopes for them.

“Supporting people who are trying to live moral lives is not something you hear as a focus of these [specialized] schools,” Warwin told me. “Of course, we [at Brotherhood Sister Sol] are very happy when a young person gets into an Ivy League college. But our primary objective isn’t to get them into elite schools. We want them to develop in a positive direction in how they interact with the people in their lives.” He said he’d rather see the city develop more consortium high schools, similar to the one he attended, and particularly in low-income neighborhoods like West Harlem where Brotherhood Sister Sol is located.

And I myself, can get only so enthused about discussing initiatives to diversify these schools: To me, the families who want the brand enough to submit their children to the hours and hours of homework and intensely competitive environment of these specialized school hothouses and send their children for hundreds of hours of test prep (and many of the families who do are of modest income) are welcome to it. I lump these schools in the same category as I put Gucci handbags and Patek Philippe watches: expensive trophies for the status conscious. I can get something that does as good a job or better, for a fraction of the monetary or human cost.

The parent of one of my daughter’s school friends disagrees with me. He’s a black man who attended one of the big three and went on to earn Ivy undergraduate and graduate degrees. He says that this fight is important because any chance people get, they will discredit the intellect and achievement of people of color: More of us need degrees from these institutions because they serve as irrefutable counter to such claims. But I wonder: If the admissions processes are changed, will it continue to have that validating power?

Another friend, Ani, attended Stuyvesant in the 1990s. She remembers that each year the student paper published a list of students who had been accepted to prestigious universities, along with their grade point averages. Some of the lower GPAs had an asterisk by them that was supposed to indicate extenuating circumstances, Ani says. “But we all understood it to mean they were a non-Asian minority.”

Ani also went to Brown. She was ashamed that she wasn’t accepted to Harvard; her father, who immigrated to New York from China, always wanted her to go to whatever he thought people perceived as “the best.” She became an M.D.; only now, after her father and his parents have died, has she begun to retrain as a teacher. “I had told my dad that I wanted to teach young children, and he said, ‘Well, if you want to work with young children you should become a pediatrician.’” She also asked that her full name not be used, because “my father’s family still don’t know that I’m leaving medicine.”

Ani also chose not to have her children tested to enter the city’s gifted and talented (called G&T) program in kindergarten. Instead, she enrolled them in a progressive, non-test-focused public elementary school. “Kids bring all different kinds of things to school and that those are equally valuable,” she says. “In G&T, they are only kids who do well on a test.”

One of Mayor de Blasio’s proposals is to admit the top performing students at each middle school to the specialized high schools. What if the city offered these students entry at 10 other city high schools in low-income neighborhoods—different ones every two years—giving them two successive entering classes comprised primarily of academically high-performing students and filled a quarter of the class with neighborhood children? What if the city’s Department of Education redirected some of the millions of dollars that have been allocated to increasing diversity at the specialized schools to principals and staff to create a holistic program for these students, to help them grow together as people and learners, a program that would infuse the entire school?

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods would be remade and neighborhoods recast. Perhaps this long-standing idea that the specialized schools serve the city’s best and brightest would retreat. (It’s happened before: As The Atlantic recently pointed out, the number of white students dropped at the specialized schools as good alternatives emerged around the city.) Most important, these children would not only be surrounded by highly academic peers, but others from whom they might learn other, perhaps equally important, lessons.

My wan support for the quest to diversify New York City’s specialized high schools is not because I don’t believe that there is racism and inequity in the design and implementation of the New York City Public school system. I do. But the battles that are fought and the studies that are published in our names constantly affirm institutions and ideals that affirm hierarchy, convey a narrow definition of worth and success, and, by exclusion, diminish other values.

There is more honor and civic value in fighting to create graduating classes of youth whose focus is co-existing, supporting and contributing, than in facilitating the entry of more black and brown youth to a school of competitors driven to win and dominate.

It’s time for everyone—but particularly people of color and poor people—to stop directing this fight against racism and inequity toward equal access to what conventional wisdom says is most worth having.

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