A fork in the road at Stuyvesant High School – race, opportunity, and the SHSAT

 Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Reading the op ed of Alina Adams, a mother and wife of African American Stuyvesant High School graduates, I must agree that the debate about the New York Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) has been improperly framed. As one of the minority Stuyvesant graduates that are the focus of the SHSAT test debate, I agree that shifting the discussion to be about the test rather than the system, and race rather than socioeconomics is a mistake for New York. I say this as someone who almost did not get into Stuyvesant, but whose life was so drastically changed by it.

There are big moments in every lifetime that define who we are as much as the course we take through life. Sitting in that exam room on that sunny fall day was one of those moments. I still well up from time to time when I look back on it and realize just how close I was to a different life, a different, more confined world, a different smaller me.

In 8th grade, a teacher told me that I should take a test for a school in the city called Stuyvesant. I hadn’t heard of it, but I was most definitely off-ramping from private school to public school in 9th grade because it was no longer financially sustainable for my parents. As I mentioned the test to other teachers, and a new friend that was school shopping, the common chorus was that Stuy was a better option than Tottenville, which I vaguely understood was an option, or Curtis, the zoned school which had an abysmal graduation rate.

Finally the test day came. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was woefully unprepared. You see, I hadn’t done any preparation at all. Everyone I asked about the exam had simply told me that math and reading of some sort would be covered. I assumed that the test would match up to what I was already learning in school – why wouldn’t it? The point of school, as I understood it, was to prepare you for whatever comes next. So I sat there, focused, and plowed my way through. I got in, and months later learned that it was only by the skin of my teeth. A classmate shared that the cutoff was around 530 that year, and my score was only 5 points above it. I further learned that most people had actually studied for the test, some for up to 18 months, spending Saturdays and perhaps Sundays memorizing the content of the exam. Looking back on it now, it seems so obvious, but why had no one ever mentioned it? Why did I only learn that Stuyvesant was the 10th best school in the nation once I was there? I still have no answers, and also have no doubts that the same story is playing out today for many others.

My world changed at Stuyvesant. Stressful though it was, I was empowered to be everything I wanted to be and do anything that excited me. The multifaceted stimuli of the people and the place kept me continually on the edge of my own interests and goals. I made friends across the spectrum of wealth, which wasn’t hard to do with a sizable free and reduced lunch qualifying student segment. I never felt poor the way I heard some of my private and boarding school counterparts seemed to. Most importantly, the multitude of student groups made it feel like anything you were interested in, you could do. When surrounded by that attitude everyday, it easily unlocks something within you. For me this manifested itself in my junior year, when I founded a mural that still stands at Chambers St. and the West Side Highway. I planned, socialized, sought and ultimately received support from the Parks Department to create it. Writing about that experience got me into Stanford University, another “yes and” environment full of aspirational dreamers, where support and resources are a given. Another fork in the road, moving me further from the under-resourced neighborhood I grew up in and expanding the people and places to which I was exposed.

Alina writes that if New York grade schools weren’t so terrible, the SHSAT wouldn’t be so hard for so many minority students. That much is clear from my own experience. But awareness of both the test and the preparation opportunities are equally important to gain equity of access. I am grateful for my luck and opportunities. I equally have friends that opted out of Stuyvesant and went to other New York high schools, and they turned out as wonderful humans. But the set of good high school options is entirely too narrow, as AOC recently argued in a town hall. With New York education in the current state it is in, a fork in the road this significant, determined by just a few points, is not nearly enough leeway.