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Why Does New York Have "Specialized" High Schools?

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On Saturday, October 27 more than 15,000 New York City middle school students took a difficult 95 question test hoping for admission to one of the city's elite public high schools. Thousands more will take the test later in November. Civil Rights groups are suing New York City and its Department of Education charging that the entire admission process is biased against poorer predominately black and Latino students because it is based on a one-shot test.

I attended the Bronx High School of Science from 1964 through 1967. In those days there was no such thing as test prep, at least not that I am aware of. You either did well on the test and where one of the chosen, or else you were assigned to attend your local high school. I lived in an area of the southwest Bronx near Yankee Stadium that was euphemistically described as a changing neighborhood. That meant working-class whites, mostly Jews, were moving out of the tenements and projects and blacks and Puerto Ricans from Harlem and the Lower East Side were moving in. Taft, the local high school, was increasingly seen by white families as dangerous and non-academic. When one of my friends was sent to Taft, it often was a signal that their family was going to move away.

I suspect that specialized high schools and other programs for the "gifted" still play an important role in real estate. As neighborhoods around New York gentrify today, these schools make it possible for white professional families to purchase bargain brownstones in Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, displacing six low income minority families that had rented in these properties. The white professionals know their children will not have to attend local schools with the other children who have not yet been forced to leave the community.

I did not like my experience at the Bronx High School of Science very much. We had too much homework and it interfered with my ability to hang out with my friends from the neighborhood. The teaching was not very special and there was no special "Science" curriculum that I was ever aware of. As far as I know, no one from my graduating class has ever received a Nobel Prize or been awarded a MacArthur grant. When I graduated and went to college I decided a career in science was not for me.

Thirty years later, my son attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and his experience there was not much different from mine at Bronx Science. Again, the teaching was not very special and there was no special "Stuyvesant" curriculum that either of us was aware of.

So why does New York City have these special schools where the teaching and curriculum are just not that special?

Recently the New York Times describes the specialized tests and schools "as a vital steppingstone for immigrants." An article included an interview with a student at the Bronx High School of Science whose family was from Bangladesh where the student made two very telling points. First, "Most of our parents don't believe in 'gifted,'" and second, that he and his friends are in these schools because of "hard work." The student's parents drive a taxi and work as a check-out person in a retail store. They see their son's attendance at Bronx Science as an important step in achieving upward mobility for the family and the "American dream." The article reported that the student spent the summer after sixth grade at a small storefront "cram school" where he memorized mathematical formulas that were on previous tests. In seventh grade, he attended the "cram school" on Saturdays and Sundays reviewing reading passages that might appear on the test. These classes cost his parents $200 a month for him to participate, but it was seen as an investment in the family's future.

In an earlier Huffington Post post, I wrote that the admission test unfairly favors students whose families can afford to pay for expensive test prep and tutoring. Many students who are capable of doing advanced work are denied admission because they fail to make the test cut-off, even though they are capable of doing advanced work.

If the specialized high schools are educationally legitimate, and I am not sure they are, there is a solution. First, New York City must identify or develop a specialized high school curriculum so that it is something more than segregating out kids who do well on tests. Second, the city needs to establish what score on the admission test and what previous school performance qualifies students to study this special curriculum. Instead of rationing seats in a few locations, every student that qualifies should be admitted to the program.

Of course it will not be possible for them all to take the one-to-two hour one-way subway trip to Stuyvesant in Manhattan or Science in the Bronx and there will not be room there for everyone anyway. Instead, once the special curriculum is identified or developed the city can set up satellite Stuyvesants and Sciences at a number of convenient locations in local high schools and save students the time wasted on the long commutes.

I have tremendous respect for the hard work of the young people who attend cram schools in an effort to work their way into the best classes and for parents who make difficult economic sacrifices. But it does not make these children "gifted" and it is not the way to run a school system.

For me, at Bronx Science I made some life-long friends, but I am not sure that would not have happened at any high school that I attended or that it is justification for the select schools. For New York City, I think the main reason for these schools continues to be economics, politics, and real estate values rather than education.