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Is This What We Consider
‘a Good Education’? 

Interrogating the Asian American disconnect
in the debate over NYC’s specialized high schools

“I think my school is a little bit racist.”

The willowy 16-year-old girl sitting across the table from me paused as she described the diversity problem at her nationally recognized, specialized public high school in New York City. She continued, barely louder than a whisper.

“A lot of people throw around the N-word, because there are no black people in our school. It’s such a small percentage,” she said, there’s no one to correct them.

My eyes widened in shock as I took her words in. I asked for clarification. “Are they using it as a slur? Or are they joking around and calling their friends that?” I tried to grasp why, in 2019, such smart kids would fling this word around so carelessly. She said that she believed it was more of the latter.

As a Chinese American student, Sam, as she wished to be identified for this article, falls within the Asian American majority at the city’s eight specialized high schools that rely on one standardized test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), as the single determining factor for admissions. (The ninth specialized high school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, does not use the exam in its admissions process.)

It’s this Asian American majority, paired with high white enrollment, that Mayor Bill de Blasio targeted (perhaps unwittingly) last June when he announced a proposal to increase diversity at these highly selective public schools.

To me, as an Asian American New Yorker, de Blasio’s announcement felt like an ill-considered spark that erupted immediately into a fiery debate on educational privilege between different pockets of my communities.

As president of Asian American Journalists Association’s New York chapter, I’ve crusaded for diversity in all forms, not just for Asians, for a decade now, and I was taken aback by the contentious quality of this fight and the wide attention that it drew.

Over the past year, local and national media, from mainstream publications to education-focused outlets, reported breathlessly about the Asian American backlash to de Blasio’s planned reforms, which would require passage through the state legislature to take effect.

With 1.1 million students, New York City’s school system is the largest in the United States — and, by some accounts, the largest in the world. What happens here could impact schools nationwide, and the intense interest of Asian American communities, in particular, has echoes of the controversial Harvard affirmative action case.


Just a few of the many SHSAT prep books.


But, I felt, the news mostly showed one side of the story, underreporting on pro-reform Asian Americans whom I saw speaking out in person and online. And as someone who emerged from a similarly selective public education system, I wanted to hear out a greater diversity of voices to make sense of the issue and put a face to the varied arguments. So I started asking questions.

Over the course of my reporting, I heard from many students, but while I sat across from Sam, in particular, I felt like I was peering at a highly evolved version of my teenage self. Like Sam, I’m an Asian American female who went to one of the best public high schools in America (mine was in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). But unlike Sam, who spends her free time learning about social justice and activism through a local nonprofit, I graduated from my exalted public school in 2003 as a young adult completely ignorant of the realities of race and educational privilege in America.

By the time I was 17 years old, standardized tests had served me well, identifying me as a “gifted” student in elementary school, winning me a coveted spot at my high school, leading to a hefty scholarship in college. Throughout my childhood, seeing all those way-above-average test scores felt like the most delicious superpower, conditioning me to believe wholeheartedly in a so-called meritocracy. Who was I to question a system that rewarded me, telling me time and time again just how good, how superior I was? Speaking from first-hand experience, I now understand how hard it is to criticize and dismantle a system that tells you unequivocally that you’re one of the best.

The mathematical fact is that at these eight prestigious high schools, heralded as the pinnacle of New York City’s sprawling public education system, Asian students, as well as whites, are overrepresented.

While students of Asian background make up 15 percent of public school enrollment citywide, they make up 60 percent of the student bodies at the eight specialized high schools, according to 2017-18 statistics reported by the New York City Independent Budget Office.

At Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School — the three oldest specialized high schools, which, some say, are the most prestigious — Asians make up 73 percent, 64 percent and 61 percent of all students, respectively, according to 2018 data. Meanwhile, Stuyvesant made headlines this spring when it offered admission to only seven black students in a class of 895 — it’s an extreme example, but it’s indicative of the precipitously low black and Latinx enrollment at the exclusive schools.


“‘…Through the release of the proposed changes and the ensuing media coverage, marginalized communities and communities of color have been pitted against each other, regardless of the intent.'”


To drastically transform these schools’ skewed, heavily Asian and white demographics, de Blasio proposed phasing out the use of the SHSAT as the single admissions criterion over several years. Eventually, under his plan, middle school class rank and statewide tests, which are wholly separate from the SHSAT, would determine admissions, opening up 90 to 95 percent of SHS seats to the top 7 percent of students from each of the city’s middle schools. The complex plan, referred to casually as “the 7-percent plan,” is detailed in full here.

It’s worth noting that in the splashy, June 2018 op-ed where de Blasio first announced his proposal, the terms “Asian” or “Asian American” are conspicuously absent.

Sam, who attends one of the three oldest specialized schools, spoke to me this spring on the condition of anonymity because she feared the backlash she would receive for speaking openly in favor of admissions reform from her fellow students and her mother, who fiercely opposes phasing out the SHSAT. Sam was one of about 15 people whom I interviewed over the course of the winter and spring of 2019 in my effort to capture the human side of this educational debate that has roiled the city’s Asian American community.

As I heard voices, including those of progressive Asian American politicians, siding against de Blasio’s plan, with some even speaking out in favor of the standardized SHSAT, I wanted to check my impulse to judge and proceed with an open mind. If there was anyone whose opinion I agreed wholeheartedly with, it was Jiayang Fan, who wrote in The New Yorker: “I couldn’t help but feel the privilege of my position as someone who, as it were, had no skin in the game. After all, I had already reaped the advantages of an elite American education, and did not have any adolescent children of my own in the immediate future to fret over.”

And so, to hear from those with “skin in the game,” I interviewed current students, parents and alumni from the specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science, as well as students at other public high schools in the city. I spoke to community leaders in local nonprofits, as well as a filmmaker who had directed, produced and written a revealing documentary about eighth-grade students’ plight to win admission to the specialized high schools. I interviewed Asians and non-Asians, those who are in favor of reforming admissions and those who are opposed. I also read dozens of articles about the SHSAT debate, and I attended a community meeting focused on desegregating Manhattan’s public schools.

As a child-free, 33-year-old journalist, it was, by far, the most I have ever interacted with New York City high school students in my life.


‘They completely silence dissent’







Some of these messages seem diametrically opposed, but they’re all slogans that pro-SHSAT demonstrators held aloft on signs at multiple rallies that took place over the past year.

Sam told me that her mother attended two of these rallies.

“She wanted me to come, too,’” Sam said in our interview at the office of the Coalition for Asian American Families and Children (CACF), a nonprofit, pan-Asian children’s advocacy organization that represents more than 50 Asian-led or Asian-serving organizations, in the Financial District of Manhattan.

CACF arranged and supervised my interview with Sam, a member of their Asian American Student Advocacy Project (ASAP) youth group, since she did not wish to have her mother present. “I knew why she was going, and she was passionate about it, but it didn’t feel right for me. I didn’t want to be seen supporting that idea,” Sam said, because she didn’t want to associate herself with this group of people whose reasons seemed to her, at the core, racist and selfish.


A previous round of the Coalition for Asian American Families and Children (CACF)’s Asian American Student Advocacy Project (ASAP) participants. Sam, a current ASAP participant, is not pictured here. Photo courtesy of CACF


While Sam agrees with de Blasio’s objective of diversifying specialized high schools like hers, she said that “the way that he’s doing it isn’t right.” It’s an opinion I heard many times while I interviewed Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), who lambasted the mayor for his lack of civic engagement in our communities before he announced his plan, which would certainly reduce AAPI enrollment at the specialized schools.

CACF, for its part, wrote the following in a statement:

“The Mayor’s plan for reform, as many educational policy-level decisions continue to do, leaves out the voices and input of the APA [ed: Asian Pacific American] community — a diverse community that largely cares about school reform and issues of equity and inclusion in education. Further, through the release of the proposed changes and the ensuing media coverage, marginalized communities and communities of color have been pitted against each other, regardless of the intent.”

Engaging in a discourse on possible changes to admissions remains challenging at Sam’s school, she said. “A lot of people are opposed to [the changes proposed by de Blasio] because that’s how they got in. They don’t see why it has to change. I think it does,” she said, but she doesn’t feel like she can speak up publicly. “A lot of people don’t care at all about diversity.”

Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Families and Children (CACF).
Photo courtesy of CACF

As CACF has surveyed specialized high school alumni, Vanessa Leung, the group’s co-executive director, told me about why some graduates who emerged from this high-stress crucible of education balk at the idea of change.

“We’ve seen how being able to get into specialized high schools is, in some ways, a badge of honor that people take to a point where it’s almost, ‘We had to go through that, so why change it?’” Leung said.

Several alumni of specialized high schools whom I spoke to mentioned the vitriol that they faced when they voiced their support for admissions reform, especially in online communities.

Jason Wu, an alumnus of Brooklyn Tech, has written two opinion pieces in favor of admissions reform for NYC’s specialized high schools.
Photo by Karl Rabe / Vassar College

“There’s been a lot of really nasty name-calling in the Brooklyn Tech alumni association Facebook group,” said Jason Wu, 33, a 2003 alumnus of the school who now works as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Harlem. Wu, with eight other specialized high school alumni, co-authored a July 2018 op-ed in Crain’s New York with the headline “Asian Americans should embrace reform of specialized high school admissions.” At the time, Wu and his co-authors were some of the few Asian American voices speaking up in favor of reform. “Once it came out, I posted it on the Brooklyn Tech alumni Facebook group, and people were calling me ‘stupid,’ ‘idiot,’ saying ‘how did I even get into Brooklyn Tech.’ They completely silence dissent.”

Ron Rapatalo, an outspoken, pro-reform 1993 alumnus of Stuyvesant, spoke of similar exchanges in his school’s online alumni communities. “My reaction is a sigh,” he said. “I could send you screenshots of the back-and-forth. I’m sick and tired of standing by while I see a lot of noise out there.”

Wu, in particular, took issue with the media narrative around the specialized high schools, calling the op-ed he co-authored “an outlier piece.” Mainstream media, he said, “refused to interview easily accessible people” from the Asian American community who were in favor of admissions reform. “It’s good that we put our message out there [in the Crain’s New York piece],” Wu said, “but it only gets a certain amount of attention, and then the dominant narrative reasserts itself.” The underrepresentation of pro-reform AAPI voices led me to highlight this perspective for this piece.

Rapatalo, 44, who is Filipino American, said that he felt the media had painted the city’s diverse Asian American communities with a single, broad brush. “Chinese Americans alone are not a monolith,” he said. “But [based on the media coverage] it’s as if all the Chinese Americans who are fighting for the test represent all Chinese Americans in New York City.”

In November of 2018, CACF produced a report titled “Overemphasizing a Test, Oversimplifying Our Children: An APA Perspective on Specialized High School Reform toward Educational Equity,” which presented its arguments for eliminating the use of any single test to determine admissions, as well as numerous alumni voices speaking out against the culture of high-stakes testing.

Leung said part of why CACF produced the report was because of the one-sided nature of media coverage of Asian American families’ responses. “We started talking to many of the alums and connected to additional folks who thought their perspective was not included in the overall dialogue that was being portrayed as the sole Asian American perspective on this issue.”

The report caused some backlash, she said. “What we were hearing was that we were traitors to our community. We were told, ‘You’re supporting a process that is anti-Asian.’” Because de Blasio’s plan would lower AAPI enrollment at the specialized high schools, some critics have labeled it “anti-Asian.”

Leung rejected that characterization of her group’s work, though. “At CACF, what we see is that we actually need to come together to be a voice for those who are most marginalized in the Asian American community. We know that there are segments within our community who do not have access to the specialized high schools,” she said.


“As Wu, the Brooklyn Tech alum and Legal Aid attorney put it, ‘White families don’t have to fight for the scraps’ of public education the way communities of color do — as communities of color represent the vast majority of the students in the city’s public schools.”


In fact, 82 percent of APA students across the city do not attend a specialized high school, according to a 2008 study called “School Choice and Segregation by Race, Class, and Achievement” that CACF cited in its report.

Leung also told me that her group had been in touch with their counterparts in black and Latinx communities and, by comparing notes, learned that the governor’s office had chosen to hold separate meetings with these groups on the SHSAT issue in 2018. “It was like, ‘Oh, you guys in the Latinx groups had a meeting? We had a meeting, too!’ They separated us,” Leung recalled. “It became clear to us that these things were happening,” when she believed the best course was to bring communities of color together for open dialogue.


The need for student voices


Why aren’t more student voices part of policy conversations and media coverage around education?

I heard this question many times over the course of my reporting. As a mid-career journalist myself, I could point to a lot of reasons why journalists seldom interview children: In my experience, journalists lean most on sources who are reliably easy to get ahold of — oftentimes, adults who speak professionally with the media for a living. Ethically, and personally, I don’t feel comfortable approaching minors without an adult’s permission, especially because not all teens know how to advocate for or protect themselves as journalists’ sources. I’d feel icky skulking around outside a local high school, hoping to interview teens. I would expect that many journalists feel the same.

While reporting this story, I asked teenage sources to meet with me in the presence of an adult whom they trusted to act as their advocate, though I did meet one-on-one with a high school senior. To find teens who would speak with me, I went through a parent or a community group. It took considerable time and effort for me to interview students in a way that I considered responsible, a luxury that many reporters do not have.

The result is that students have been underrepresented in media coverage around the SHSAT.

This was the thesis of the op-ed that introduced me to Teens Take Charge, a student-led program within The Bell, a nonprofit that shares students’ voices on educational issues. “Student voices missing in coverage of NYC specialized schools debate,” the headline read, as its co-authors Ayana Smith and Sophie Mode analyzed sources in two media outlets, The New York Times and Chalkbeat, that covered the issue extensively. The piece presented its analysis so well, it took me a second read before I realized that as Teens Take Charge press officers, Ayana and Sophie were, in fact, high school students, not adult public affairs professionals.

“The perspectives of black and [Latinx] students, parents, and educators are essential in understanding the complexity of this issue,” Ayana, 17, and Sophie, 16, wrote. “These groups feel the impact of the city’s segregated school system more than any others. To be complete, coverage of the specialized high schools debate and other issues related to race and equity needs their views.”


Ayana Smith, 17, (left) and Sophie Mode, 16, the press officers of Teens Take Charge.
Photo by Dulce Michelle Marquez


When I met Ayana in February, she was in her senior year in high school at a screened public high school in the Bronx, the borough where she lives.

“I worked my butt off in middle school, and one test defined it,” she said of her experience taking the SHSAT as an eighth grader. As an academically promising middle school student, Ayana, who is black, was selected for the free DREAM test-prep program funded by the city’s Department of Education. “It wasn’t that helpful,” she said. “They gave us a textbook and said, ‘Oh, go study. You have six months,’ when, in fact, it takes about a year to prepare for the SHSAT.” Her eyes were calm as she met my gaze through her wire-rimmed glasses.

“Although I was doing my best to prepare for the test, just having an environment that wasn’t pushing me to prepare for the test, I felt, was really a drawback,” she said, remaining impressively composed and grounded as she described her middle school as a dangerous setting where stabbings and going on lockdown were not out of the ordinary.

“In seventh and eighth grade, we’re still learning what sixth graders are learning in affluent schools in affluent neighborhoods. A lot of the content that I was learning at DREAM wasn’t reinforced,” Ayana added.

It seems obvious to me that not all SHSAT prep programs are equal — Ayana’s experience in DREAM could not be further from that of students like Sam, whose parents paid for privately run courses. In the excellent 2015 documentary “Tested,” which follows prospective SHSAT takers and their families, filmmaker Curtis Chin reveals the stark contrasts in the methods and results of free and paid test prep programs.

Yet as I interviewed Asian American anti-reform sources or read their accounts in news coverage, I heard them claim over and over again that the availability of the free DREAM program is proof that students who take the SHSAT start from “a level playing field.” Some who were willing to acknowledge the disparity in SHSAT prep programs resorted to racist tropes as they pointed out that there are poor Asian families that scrimp and pinch to send their kids to private lessons, and that black and brown families could do the same for their kids if they cared more.

“I think these immigrant parents just don’t understand things like generational poverty. They don’t understand the school-to-prison pipeline,” Chin said in an interview. “Asian Americans do benefit from certain stereotypes that give them opportunities and give them confidence” when it comes to standardized testing.

Curtis Chin, the filmmaker who directed, produced and wrote the documentary “Tested,” which follows students seeking admission to NYC’s specialized high schools. Photo courtesy of Curtis Chin

From my own experience, I would posit that this ignorance extends to many students at specialized schools. As a teenager, I prized my education — it defined me as a winner. Yet, while I earned college credit with my high scores on the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History and Government exams, I emerged from this academic environment knowing nothing about redlining, including racial discrimination in mortgage lending; or the disproportionate rates at which black students are unfairly disciplined in schools, a cause of the school-to-prison pipeline. To this day, I’ve never discussed these issues with my parents, but I also recall from my childhood that my mother would order me and my sisters to lock our car doors whenever we were driving through a “black neighborhood.”

I wondered if anti-reform parents would be able to spout their problematic arguments while facing a student like Ayana, who seemed to me like she approached her academics and her work with Teens Take Charge with serious dedication. I wished that parents who were clinging to the SHSAT could hear her speak, I said at one point while interviewing Teens Take Charge’s adult facilitator, Taylor McGraw.

“Oh, they have,” he said, telling me of Ayana’s attendance at a factious Community Education Council District 2 meeting in late 2018 where she shared her testimony of feeling the acute inequalities of the city’s public school system. Her audience was a crowd of Manhattan parents who hailed from affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side and Tribeca. While a number of parents applauded her and the other students there that night, a small group of adults, who were Asian, yelled at her and interrupted her, McGraw said. Other Teens Take Charge members, he said, had testified at similarly contentious meetings where they faced some angry parents. “They’ve heard some really nasty things.”

Taylor McGraw,  adult facilitator for Teens Take Charge. Photo courtesy of Taylor McGraw

I told McGraw that Ayana hadn’t mentioned any of this in my interview with her, and I asked how the teens reacted when faced with such opposition. “They, on some level, realize that these parents are angry because they care about their kids,” he explained in our interview early this year. “They want their kids to have a great education, and [the Teens Take Charge members] can relate to that.” Since then, McGraw added recently, as the tide of the debate has turned, he believes the students’ feelings may have changed over time.

When I spoke to Sophie, Ayana’s co-author, who identifies as white and Jewish, she summed up the anti-reform parents’ argument by saying, “It’s about ‘what my child needs,’ not about what’s best for the whole school system. It’s like, your child already has so much privilege, and we need to do something about that.”


‘We have some housekeeping to do in our community’


At this point, more than a year after de Blasio announced his proposal, the bill that would put his plan into action has failed to pass through the state legislature. The city faces a lawsuit against the admissions changes, mounted by certain Asian American factions, as well as an amply funded opposition campaign. Just days before this article was set to be published, de Blasio reportedly told a group of journalists that “our plan didn’t work” and that he would “start over — listen to everyone, and listen for something that will get us progress.”

Meanwhile, as reported by Chalkbeat, the state assemblyman who sponsored the stymied bill in the last legislative session said he would take a different approach rather than resubmitting the bill. So it’s back to the drawing board for this ambitious, yet highly contested plan, with no progress yet to show.

If anything, I’d say, this controversy has succeeded only in stirring up a great deal of ugliness and division among New York City’s communities of color.

“The top white kids in New York City [academically and socioeconomically] have already been pulled out of the system” into private schools, Chin, the filmmaker, said.

As Wu, the Brooklyn Tech alum and Legal Aid attorney put it, “White families don’t have to fight for the scraps” of public education the way communities of color do — as communities of color represent the vast majority of the students in the city’s public schools. In early 2019, Wu also wrote an op-ed for Chalkbeat on the aforementioned lawsuit, cautioning fellow Asian Americans from allowing our struggles to be “distorted and weaponized … for ulterior purposes.”

In June, CACF released a statement that it called an “open plea” to New Yorkers, condemning the taunts, insults and even doxxing of students and parents who have spoken out on specialized high school admissions. The divide, CACF’s statement said, stemmed from the myth of Asians as the “model minority”:

“Many in this debate fail to recognize the structural racism that has shaped our public education system, and that is rooted in anti-blackness. But many also fail to understand histories of APA communities and the multiple struggles that APA families and children face in an education system that overlooks our communities’ needs and renders our APA youth invisible.”

“There’s a false position that our self-interest is in opposition to other communities of color,” Wu said, criticizing those whom, he believes, care only about advancing the interests of Asian Americans.

Ron Rapatalo, an alumnus of Stuyvesant High School. 
Photo courtesy of Ron Rapatalo

“Let’s talk about the fact that we have some housekeeping to do in our community,” said Rapatalo, the Stuyvesant alum, who now works in hiring leaders in education and nonprofits. “I hear this argument from other Asian Americans of ‘why are we not getting our due?’ I understand this, but the anger is misplaced at best, and the origins are from not caring about black or brown people.”

While reporting, when I stepped back to consider any common threads between my pro-reform sources, I noticed that nearly all were deeply involved in other communities of color outside their own racial groups.

Rapatalo, who grew up in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, said his roots humanized his relationships with other people of color and pushed him to stand beside black and brown communities. As the husband to his black wife and the father to his biracial daughter, he said, “I need to be able to look my daughter and other black and brown kids in the eye and say what I did for equity.”

Wu, who said he grew up in working-class communities in Brooklyn and Queens that were mostly black and Latino, said he observed the disparity in opportunities on the basis of race, income, immigration status and many more factors, but he didn’t have the language to talk about it in his youth. Now, as an attorney, he said the vast majority of his clients are black and Latino. “To address systemic racism we need systemic reforms,” he added.

As alumni of specialized high schools, both Rapatalo and Wu spoke about their experiences of learning to dismantle the myth of meritocracy.

“There’s this whole idea of ‘I got here because I’m solely talented’ and ‘Why are we being attacked for our success?’” Rapatalo said. “But we [Asian Americans] have been successful despite the structural racism. I’m not gifted and talented, I’m just good at tests, and I got disproportionate resources.”

His words hit home for me, although my awakening came on a delayed timeline.

In hindsight, I can recognize that I grew up in a privileged bubble that raised me to become a teenager with an empathy deficit. I genuinely believed that there was only one way to be smart: my way. I believed I’d earned my place of privilege because I was so smart, and that only people like me deserved such privilege.

Deflating that bubble was a painful process. The first pinprick came when I began to struggle in high school under the veneer of perfectionism — it dawned on me that there were problems beyond my control that I could not test, score, achieve my way out of.

After college, I moved to South Korea, where I experienced life as part of an ethnic majority for the first time. Immersed in Korean culture, I finally saw myself as a Korean American — no longer as a white person trapped in an Asian body.

In 2014, just months after moving back to the U.S., I woke up to the harsh reality that the murders of unarmed black people at the hands of police were a nationwide scourge, not awful one-off accidents. In 2016, I saw a candidate who spread insidious, racist lies about Mexicans win the presidency, and then I witnessed rabid, ignorant Islamaphobia in action through the Muslim ban.

I had to wipe away my fantasies of America’s racial harmony that I’d held so dear. I had to acknowledge my privilege, safety and proximity to whiteness as an upper-middle-class Korean American. In the decade that I’ve volunteered with AAJA, I’ve also learned the importance of advocating not only for fellow Asian Americans, but also for other marginalized communities.


The bigger issue


The first time I watched “Tested,” Chin’s documentary, in the summer of 2018, I cried. It was my first exposure to the vastness and the inequity of the New York City public school system, which, as a child-free adult, I’d seen very little of.

“Tested” is a 2015 documentary that captures the plight of a group of eighth graders who are studying to gain admission to NYC’s specialized high schools. Photo courtesy of director Curtis Chin

In addition to being the country’s largest public school system, New York City’s schools are also plagued by persistent segregation, a problem that stretches way beyond just the specialized high schools.

The reality is, the specialized schools are some of the very limited opportunities for New York City’s students to receive a free, quality education, and that scarcity has created a zero-sum game, where one group’s gains lead to another group’s losses, Leung said.

While the SHSAT debate has sparked unprecedented levels of civic engagement among local AAPIs, advocacy has to reach beyond just these eight specialized schools. If we really want to provide educational equity for all AAPI students, and not just the 18 percent who attend the elite eight, as well as non-AAPI students, change needs to happen across the entire school system, CACF’s report said.

It’s a statement that the students of Teens Take Charge have tried to make from the beginning, too.

“The students had a lot of grievances to air about the education,” well beyond just the specialized schools, McGraw, the group’s adult facilitator, said of his first batch of students. “They asked, ‘Why is it that in order to get the so-called good opportunities, I have to go to a majority white school? Why is it that I am reduced to a test score, and why don’t I get access to the arts and extra-curriculars that more affluent kids are getting?’”

This spring, Teens Take Charge unveiled its Enrollment Equity Plan, which proposes diversifying all of the city’s high schools — not just the elite eight — so that every freshman class has a mix of high- and low-scorers on the state’s middle school exams. The purpose, the students say, is to prevent the extreme concentrations of low-performing students in small, racially and socioeconomically segregated schools, like we see today. While state has jurisdiction over the specialized high schools, de Blasio’s city government could roll out these changes to non-specialized high schools overnight, McGraw said.

As of August 2019, a new proposal put forth by a de Blasio-appointed task force is making waves with its aim to radically desegregate the system by scrapping gifted programs at all elementary and middle schools, as well as some high schools — which doesn’t include the specialized schools. Keeping up with the educational brouhahas in this city can feel like an impossible task.

As for the specialized high schools, Sophie from Teens Take Charge pointed to how their Enrollment Equity Plan supports a version of de Blasio’s 7 percent plan, which would offer seats to students from middle schools across the city.

If de Blasio’s June 2018 plan did take effect, Chin, the filmmaker, predicted, it would change the culture of the specialized high schools. “They will not be the same schools that they have been in the past,” he surmised.

But, I wonder, would that be such a bad thing?

As it stands now, Rapatalo said, SHSAT supporters are holding onto a single test. “There’s this thinking that ‘I studied really hard, so other people should have to study hard, too.’ Is that what we want? That is not what I want for society and kids and families to have to do. To go to test-prep mills and spend hard-earned money to take a test?”

The time has come, I believe, to redefine what it means to be a great public school.

McGraw put it this way: “I don’t know why we’re celebrating a school that’s 97 percent Asian or white as a great school. I don’t know who came up with the idea that that was the definition of a great public school, because I think that a great public school is a school that exposes children to all types of diverse ideas, backgrounds and cultures and pushes them to think critically about the world around them.”

When I listened to current and former students of the specialized high schools, I questioned whether these environments really did allow young adults to thrive.

“What does thriving mean? Being cutthroat? Beating ourselves to a pulp to prove something?” Rapatalo wondered aloud. “I’m very grateful for my specialized high school education, but I’ve had to decolonize my mind from the idea that I’ve had to work myself to a pulp to prove myself.”


To learn more:

What’s happened in the year since Mayor Bill de Blasio called for overhauling NYC’s specialized high school admissions – Chalkbeat

An Uneven Playing Field: The Complex Educational Experiences of Asian Americans – Higher Education Today

4 Myths Fueling the Fight Over NYC’s Exclusive High Schools – The Atlantic

Specialized High Schools Proposal: Making Admissions to the Specialized High Schools More Equitable for All Students – NYC Department of Education

Enrollment Equity Plan – Teens Take Charge

Watch: ‘Tested: A diverse group of students fight to get into one of New York City’s best public high schools’ (DVD available from New York Public Library or for purchase)