Monday, February 27, 2012

40 of 3,295

Like the unpaid internship, the question of why Stuyvesant doesn't have more than a handful of black students gets raised every so often, and yet the problem seems to get worse. This time, NYT reporter Fernanda Santos tells the larger story through that of Rudi-Ann Miller, one of the school's few black students. The article is misleading in places - much of what Miller experiences is just Stuyvesant and not particular to being black. The long commute, for example. The overall nameless, nothing-but-a-number atmosphere. But the statistics are jarring, and the broader points hold. The piece is being shared, albeit without much comment, among the trillion of my high school classmates who are active on Facebook. What does it all mean?

My immediate and insufficiently-thought-through thoughts below:

-Just to properly situate myself in this discussion, I'm definitely on the side of thinking it's a problem that Stuyvesant barely has any black or Latino students. A problem, if nothing else, because this isn't about PC-types criticizing just-how-it-is, but because, as this article demonstrates, kids from certain schools and communities are never even offered the test, never even aware of the test, of the schools it could get them into, etc. Also, you know, legacies of slavery and all that, with the twist that the "overrepresented" groups are not exactly Mayflower descendants, and have some bad-if-not-as-bad legacies of their own.

-Speaking of, I also find it plenty unnerving that this is presented as that there are too many Asian and Asian-American students. Just as it's not the fault of black kids if they didn't even know about the test, it's not evidence of some kind of cabal that Asian immigrants learned of it while still in Asia. And, as an aside, there's nothing like four years of predominantly-Asian-and-Asian-American high school to banish whatever notions one may have had about the kids themselves being especially studious. There's something that goes on in Asian immigrant communities or families that gets a lot of kids passing the test, but Americanization is Americanization, and just like my own people, Ashkenazi Jews, did before them, once arrived, they slack and delinquentize like everyone else.

-If it were up to me, I'd go with the extensive-outreach-to-middle-schools-if-not-elementary-schools method, but not the scrap-the-test one. Interviews and essays might achieve racial balance, but it would so radically change the makeup of the student body in ways that have zilch to do with race. It's hard to say exactly what the test accomplishes, but I could say easily enough what not using grades, interviews, or letters of recommendation does. The student body was incredibly diverse as students, from creative-but-not-diligent slackers to the incredibly driven. And in terms of who's ultimately done well, it's such a mix. I think the school is a more interesting place for not being uniformly composed of teacher's-pet-types. Also, when the only factor is a test, you can always say, how unfair, it's just a performance on one stupid test this one day. And that is, to a certain extent, correct. Whereas once it's holistic, it's not that you didn't get in, but that you weren't good enough. Basically, I'd much rather if they just decided to admit the top scorers of each race, or to give underrepresented applicants an automatic however-many-point boost, than to see a Whole Person approach take hold. Especially when the applicants are, let's remember, thirteen years old, and I'm not entirely sure what there is to assess holistically when it comes to middle schoolers, who are, however delightful they as individuals were or will be, kind of... difficult.

-So, awareness-raising about the existence of the test, yes, there needs to be much more of that. I suspect, though, that too much is made about the power of prep courses. I don't know how many students take them, or what miracles they offer, but my hunch is this angle has been overstated, even if it's a hunch based on anecdote. Maybe I got in because of ambient upper-middle-class-white-person-with-educated-parents privilege and ambient unfairness, but I didn't take a course or have a tutor or, for that matter, even want to go to Stuyvesant, although once I got in I came around. Coming from a private school might have helped, or not, because the acceptance rate from the private middle school I applied from wasn't amazing (of the few students who applied, which I'll get to in a moment), and I was definitely less prepared for the math-science end of things than many kids from regular public schools. The feeder schools were public schools, but only certain public schools, in a city where rich parents send their kids to private school. In other words, there's of course all kinds of unfairness behind who does and doesn't get in, but I don't think it's as straightforward as well-off parents buying their kids' way in.

-The science high schools are their own bizarre quasi-meritocratic entity, but not the bastion of privilege we're meant to see them as. Poor black and Latino students don't apply, but neither do rich white kids. Stuyvesant is about social advancement, and is of virtually no interest to those already at the top. When I applied, maybe six of my classmates (out of 60) also did, and two of us got in. It is, in other words, hardly automatic that well-off white people get in (and of course, those of us taking the test in the first place skewed a whole lot more middle-class than the rest of our classmates). It's incredibly unlikely for families of immense privilege to even want to send their kids to the school. As in, I got sniffs of disgust/pity that I was transferring to a public school, either because my classmates didn't know what Stuyvesant was, or because it was public which trumped the rest. And it was public - it's a huge school with no personal attention, no hand-holding, no finishing-school-ness.

-The science high schools are presented as the home of New York's fancy and schmancy, when there's this substantial network of private schools (and boarding schools!) whose contribution to the general unfairness of life is a wee bit greater than that of a school which is, if nothing else, economically diverse. Which private schools - with their mix of super-rich, UMC, and poor-but-brilliant - are not. Yes, $750 for a prep course to enter a free high school is a lot of money for some families, but compare that with $40,000 a year. At Stuyvesant, maybe half my homeroom was on free lunch. At Spence, my classmates thought I was poor because my family doesn't have a house in the Hamptons. Perspective.

-The fact that rich white kids who don't need it aren't applying doesn't make it somehow OK that poor kids of color who do need it aren't applying or aren't getting in. But the way this issue is always presented is reminiscent of the way, at various points in history, Jews were used as stand-ins for royalty/rich oppressors of peasants, because Jews were, after all, easier to take on than the real elites. An intermediary, a scapegoat. Along the same lines, here, one sees lower-middle and middle-class Asians/Asian-Americans used as a stand-in for 'coastal elites', when it would seem that the real folks in power (which is to say, the rich and white, of whom, these days, of course some are Jews) are left off the hook.

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