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The Case of the Disappearing Black and Latino Student: Race and the Achievement Gap at Smith College and Stuyvesant High School

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Over the past several days, I have spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter discussing two widely posted articles. In the first, a blog entry titled "Alum Tells Smith College to Quit Admitting Poors," Jezebel posted a letter from Anne Spurzem '84, president of the Smith College Westchester alumni club, bemoaning the current makeup of Smith's campus. Her letter complains:

The people who are attending Smith these days are A) lesbians or B) international students who get financial aid or C) low-income women of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college and will go to any school that gives them enough money...

And concludes:

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.

Wow.

Then, Fernanda Santos published a compelling story in the New York Times describing the travails of Rudi-Ann Miller, one of 40 black students at my alma matter, Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant is one of New York City's prestigious specialized high schools; admission to the school of 3,295 students is based entirely on a standardized test. Those 40 black students (1.2 percent of the student body, compared to 32 percent of students system wide) represent a significant decline: according to the article, Stuyvesant was 12 percent black (303 of the school's 2,536 students) in 1975. By 1980, there were 212 black students; in 1990, 147; in 2000, 109; and in 2005, 66. Latino students make up 2.4 percent of the student body, and 40.3 of the school system. A follow up article by Ms. Santos shows a small overall uptick in black and Latino admissions at the eight NYC high schools that use the test for admissions, but the overall trend remains disturbing.

For students in New York City, especially those who can't afford private school, getting into Stuyvesant is like winning the lottery. In my senior year, six kids from my homeroom went to Harvard, which I think beats several states. It certainly made a tremendous difference in my life.

My reaction to the first article was to make fun of the author, and even to feel sorry for her. Clearly, she had no idea what havoc she had unleashed. My wife (Smith '93) was one of those low-income women of color and first generation college students whose presence so offends Ms. Spurzem. I know from my wife's experiences there that those views were not uncommon then, although the woman who slipped the note under my wife's door calling her a nigger at least had enough sense not to sign it. (I'm not saying that that note and Ms. Spurzem's letter are equivalent by any means -- but they are both animated by racial exclusiveness designed to make women of color feel unwelcome.)

Over the past several days, I've been involved in several online discussions with other Stuyvesant alums about Ms. Santos' original article. We've talked about the elusive concept of merit, the perception in so many inner-city middle schools that Stuyvesant is for "other kids," the loss of test-preparation programs that helped earlier generations pass the test, and the successful strategies of Asian-American immigrant parents (72.5 percent of Stuyvesant students are Asian American, compared to 13.7 percent of the total New York City public school population). It's been a robust and interesting debate and demonstrates how much we love our school and care about education in New York City.

Where you stand on the declining numbers of African Americans at Stuyvesant depends on your answers to two questions. First, do you think the small number of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant is a problem? Second, what should we do about it?

I expected lots of disagreement about the second question. What I did not expect was the level of disagreement about the first. For many Facebook posters, the lack of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant is not even a problem: the racial makeup of the student body is irrelevant.

I disagree. The American dream demands that where a child ends up in life should not be determined by where he started. Race, class and zip code should not determine destiny. Yet, after civil wars and civil rights, this elusive dream remains unrealized, and it will stay that way until children from every party of our city and our nation have an equal chance to attend and succeed at the best schools and achieve their best futures. The dearth of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant is but one example of this fact. These racial disparities are not a coincidence; they are a cancer on our democracy, and we must continue to drive toward solutions.

There is a lot we can do to improve diversity at Stuyvesant, beginning with improving the admissions process. Basing admissions on a single high-stakes test is a mistake. Students do not take the same roads to that test. Some went to excellent early childhood programs; some had no early childhood programs at all. Some went to excellent public or private schools; others attended the failure factories that plague so many New York City neighborhoods. Health care, housing, air quality, nutrition, parental engagement -- all of these factors affect where a child starts in life, and they all are impacted by class and race. As a result, a single test cannot determine a young person's merit. It cannot tell you how hard they have worked and what they have had to overcome. It certainly cannot tell you -- at least not by itself -- whether a young person has what it takes to succeed in a competitive environment like Stuyvesant. That's why so many colleges have stopped relying so heavily on the SATs. We should guarantee admissions to the top students at each of the city's middle schools (some schools send dozens of students to Stuyvesant each year, while entire high-poverty school districts send none) and provide test-prep courses in low-income neighborhoods. We should promote diversity by giving preferential admissions to under-represented minorities, and add supports at Stuyvesant to make sure those children succeed.

We can also build a better and more equitable school system in New York City that benefits children of all classes and races. Expanding access to early childhood programs in low-income neighborhoods will make sure children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. We should make every school a community school, with school-based health clinics, after-school and summer programs, and parent engagement strategies that can remove the barriers that stand in the way of learning. We should continue the Bloomberg administration's policy of closing failing schools and opening better ones.

These are difficult choices. It is reasonable to oppose racial preferences on principle or to want to explore whether race-neutral strategies alone can have an impact. We can debate whether we should expand early childhood and after-school programs, or continue the drastic cuts the Bloomberg administration has imposed in recent years. But we'll never even get to this debate unless we can agree there is a problem to fix. My wife, now a professor at New York Law School, often speaks about how many of the students in her civil rights courses no longer view race as a challenge for our society. This is encouraging in a way. But if you understand that race still matters, what will the "post-racial" views of her students mean for the future of civil rights?

The head of the Smithies of Westchester is disturbed by the rising diversity at Smith's College. My wife's former tormentor was willing to do vile things to express a similar dismay.

The same isn't true of my debaters on Facebook: these are good people who want the best for everyone. None of them objects to having more black and Latino students at Stuyvesant. But if we cannot even acknowledge the pernicious affect that the achievement gap has on perpetuating racial castes in America, how can we expect to do anything about it?