We all agree that the latest admissions statistics for New York City’s specialized high schools are unacceptable. Black and Latino students, who together represent more than two-thirds of the overall city public school population, made up less than 10% of those admitted this year.
But let’s have an honest dialogue about the real issues at play here. The problems are much deeper than one exam, so let’s tread carefully before we abandon the single, objective admissions standard that has been used since the 1930s.
I know firsthand what going to Stuyvesant High School means for new immigrants. My parents came from Korea when I was a small child. I learned English by watching “Sesame Street.” We frequently moved (in my case, six times in 12 years) as we participated in the ups and downs of immigrant American life.
My parents didn’t know about private schools, and even if they had, they couldn’t have afforded to send me. Nor did they know how better neighborhood public schools worked.
But they knew the city’s public specialized high schools by reputation. We knew that my family’s best shot to open up a world of opportunity was to sit for the test and do well enough to win a spot.
At Stuyvesant, there was never any doubt, no matter our economic or ethnic or racial background, that we all earned our way in. We came from many walks of life and from all over the city. Then, as today, the kids were hungry; literally half came from families that qualified for reduced-price or free lunch.
We shared quintessential New York values: striving to be the best regardless of where you started from, which also made it one of the most intense and competitive places I have ever known.
Those who call for the elimination of the Specialized High School Admissions Test fail to understand that the demographic disparities are the direct result of decades of failure in our public schools. Tweaking the admissions process may make some feel better, but it won’t do anything to deliver the higher-quality education the system is supposed to provide.
The greatest misdirection of critics is ignoring the simple fact that Asian-Americans, who are disproportionately represented at the specialized high schools, are also a minority group, who, like other minority groups, have historically suffered and continue to suffer significant discrimination.
Serving the needy (Kevin C. Downs/for New York Daily News)
Little more than 50 years ago, Asian immigration was prohibited by law. Just 75 years ago, more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded into barbed-wire camps on the West Coast. Today, Asian-Americans from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and many other countries suffer discrimination because of their Muslim faith.
One of the slurs often made in the debate about the test is that Asian families are wealthy and can afford expensive test preparation. In fact, the percentage of Asian-Americans living in poverty in our city exceeds that in the black and Latino communities .
The Mayor’s Office of Operations’ annual report on poverty in the city, released this month, noted that 24.1% of Asian-American New Yorkers lived in poverty in 2016, the latest year for available statistics, compared to 23.9% for Hispanics, 19.2% for blacks and 13.4% for whites.
This is borne out at Stuyvesant. While 75% of current students are Asian-Americans, they also, according to Department of Education statistics, constitute over 90% of students qualifying for free or subsidized lunch, the measure of poverty used in educational circles.
I believe strongly in the value of a diverse student body at Stuyvesant. That’s why the Stuyvesant Alumni Association, which I head, reaches out to underrepresented community middle schools to provide free test prep and mentorship. This year, we served 70 students, and due in part to our efforts, a bright young girl was offered admission to Stuyvesant, and four others were offered spots at other specialized high schools.
We refuse to be baited into the zero-sum game of pitting one minority group against another. The system is failing too many children, and getting rid of one exam isn’t going to solve the real inequities in our schools. Real change will be much harder, so let’s get to work.
Kim, who graduated from Stuyvesant in 1993, is president of the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association.