My Experience with New York City’s Specialized High School System

The top two days of public unrest I’ve experienced in my young adult career are 9/11 and when we received our SHSAT scores.

The day we received those SHSAT scores, everything changed for everyone. It was when dreams were broken or made and opportunities were given or taken away.

People like to think that this standardized test is purely merit based or a great marker for intelligence. It isn’t.

I got into Stuyvesant High School because I got one more question correct than my peers. I still remember my grade, a little over 550, just scratching by my classmate who got under 530, who failed to get into Stuyvesant (crushing his heart), and thus got into Bronx Science.

I was in the top class of my grade in JHS 189. While my class was maybe half Asian, it had some diversity. None of those students got into Stuyvesant High School, Bronx Science, or even Brooklyn Tech. I don’t think some of them even took the exam or knew about it.

I remember one girl who was visibly destroyed. She might have been the best student in our class or grade. She got into Lehman.

The only reason I got into Stuyvesant is because my parents paid thousands of dollars for test prep over years. It wasn’t intelligence or merit, it was privilege and luck.

I still remember what I studied in a tiny room in Flushing for months on end for the SHSAT. How to answer reading comprehension questions quickly without even reading the passage. How to identify types of questions and easily eliminate the wrong answers. We were being trained on test-taking not intelligence. We were being trained to take the test quickly and effectively by taking advantage of hidden patterns that would only be clear to people who had been studying this exam for years. The very own teachers that graded the exam year after year, then taught it to hopeful students year after year, and got paid lucratively to do so in the prep school industry.

It is clear from my experience in my junior high school, that the only reason I got into Stuyvesant opposed to my colleagues is because I was able to afford this prep school education. I did not learn anything in my junior high school that could have adequately prepared me for this exam.

I was lucky because I lived in Flushing where there are more than 3 prep schools in walking distance. I was lucky because my mother convinced my father to invest more than a thousand dollars per month in my future for this stupid test. I was lucky because I took a practice SHSAT more than 30 times and was coached on improving my score over months. By the time I took the test, I was literally an SHSAT scholar, I knew that test like the back of my hand.

I have seen both sides because while I was one of the best students at Stuyvesant High School, the pressure broke me. There was a suicide at Stuyvesant my first year. I would have been a suicide for someone else’s first year had I succeeded.  I had a 97 GPA freshman year at Stuyvesant, a school where more than half the kids have a GPA over 90. My colleagues went to Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. I transferred to my local high school, Flushing High School.

The team at Flushing High School truly worked a miracle for me. I went from not being able to get out of bed even if my mom said she would give me $100 a day if I went to school, to running laps by myself in front of the entire gym class because my gym teacher said she wouldn’t let me graduate until I made up for all the classes I missed.

My teachers at Stuyvesant were amazing too. Ms. Brown visited me when I was at the psychiatric ward. I was really lucky.

Unfortunately, the experience opened my eyes. In my senior year, I was in most of the top classes that Flushing High School had to offer but the material I was learning was material I had already learned in my first year at Stuyvesant High School.

While I was at Stuyvesant, the black student population could be summed up by the photo of the African Student Union or something like that in the yearbook, you could count the number of students with your fingers.  Not only that but I was racist. I said an incredibly offensive comment that I don’t even remember in one of my chemistry classes and the black female student who sat next to me never respected me ever again.

Thankful to that traumatic moment and the kindness and generosity given to me by Ms. Brown during this time, it influenced me to take a Black Power course in college that changed my life. I remember reading Black Power by Kwame Ture from the 1960s in disbelief. That book pulled the pieces together of this mystery I didn’t understand.

My parents were small business owners. They owned a little seafood market in the Bronx. They were extremely racist. They complained about their mostly black and hispanic customers who would occasionally buy luxurious seafood meals with food stamps.

Every time I went to help at their store, I took the 6 uptown to Brook Avenue. I would always be the only Asian person on that train. When I was walking around the neighborhood I would stick out like a sore thumb.

I watched my parents get cursed at by some racist customers for their accents and race, to go back to their country. I watched my parents hold their tongue, take their money, and curse beneath their breath.

From my limited knowledge, my parents only made money from this ghetto in the Bronx and then they took that money home to where they lived, Flushing, Queens. If my parents lived where they worked and I went to a public school in that neighborhood, my life would have been drastically different.

Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more black small businesses in New York City?

Have you heard of how the financial crisis wiped out more than 40% of black wealth in America?

Have you heard how subprime mortgage lenders preyed on black households? Even if they had a good credit rating that qualified them for a normal mortgage, they gave these households a subprime mortgage.

How did my parents manage to get a normal mortgage and ensure that we lived in our home for years without having to move around into less desirable neighborhoods?

No offense to my classmates at Stuyvesant High School but the majority of them were not that special. They were the same as my classmates at Flushing High School except with a significantly better opportunity.

At Stuyvesant, I joined the lacrosse team, the school newspaper, the policy debate team, and tried to start my own clubs for entrepreneurship and sustainability. Stuyvesant’s Speech and Debate club spanned multiple categories just for debate and could pack two classrooms. When I went to a debate team session at Flushing High School, I saw less than 10 people.

Stuyvesant offered electives like woodworking, robotics, AP Economics. Different languages like Latin, Ancient Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Italian, and more. You could take a class on science fiction literature, art, architecture, computer programming, multi-variable calculus, photography, and human disease.

At Stuyvesant, I thought teenage pregnancy was a myth. At Flushing, there were always students that had to sit out gym because they were pregnant. I still remember another student I bumped into in the hall. He was a father at 16 and expecting his second child.

These students deserve a better chance.

It is unequal for all.

If you want to read and learn more about American poverty, I highly recommend Evicted by Matthew Desmond.

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