hen 20-year-old Nzhinga Prescod reflects on her experience at Stuyvesant High School, her teenage memories aren’t all that pleasant.
“It was hard to connect with the people there because I wasn’t really like them,” said Prescod, now a sophomore at Columbia. “They were so dedicated to school and academics and they weren’t well rounded.”
With more prodding, Prescod reveals the real issue that made her high school years difficult: the absence in her classroom of people that looked like her.
“There are not enough minorities there. That was like a big problem,” Prescod said. “I would have had a better time and enjoyed my high school experience better if there had been more minorities there.”
This weekend, nearly 30,000 eighth and ninth graders across the city will sit for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) to gain access to the first-rate, free public school education provided at 8 specialized New York City high schools, including Stuyvesant High School. But if history is any indicator, relatively few of the high scorers will be black or Latino.
Lack of motivation and lack of preparation have been cited as reasons few blacks and Latinos pass and attend specialized high schools. But Prescod’s experience suggests an additional reason. The dearth of black students within the specialized high schools might be persuading some advanced black students to attend private school. According to data gathered by the New York City Department of Education, only 6.7 percent of the 14,253 students that attended the eight specialized high schools in the 2011-2012 academic year were black students; 7.3 percent were Hispanic; 26 percent of students were white; while Asians held a large majority of seats at the elite schools at 59.3 percent.
Twin sisters Ogor and Ngozi Ogehdo, both 20-years-old and now Barnard College students left the public school system behind after elementary school for lots of reasons. They considered returning to attend a specialized high school, but chose not to because they believed they’d be happier and in a more diverse environment at a private school.
“I never wanted to go back to public school,” Ogor said. “Because it was so big, I wasn’t able to make friends with other kids and I didn’t feel like I was still being challenged. When you have smaller class sizes, teachers become familiar with your way of learning, writing, test taking and personality. That really inspired me to want to leave.”
Is the SHSAT Fair?
Many New York City students, parents, and organizers believe the key to increasing the racial diversity of specialized high schools is to remove the barriers posed by the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). The test, which has been likened to the SAT, is a 2.5-hour multiple-choice exam. It is the only criteria used for admissions to the elite schools, trumping grades or extracurricular activities as evidence of potential academic success. And most of the blacks and Latinos who take the test don’t do as well as their white peers, preventing their admission. According to the complaint, of the black students who took the SHSAT in the fall of 2011, only 5 percent received an offer of admission to any of the eight elite public schools. For Latinos, Asians and whites, the acceptance rates were 6.7 percent, 35 percent and 30.6 percent respectively.
A group of 14 New York City civil rights and education organizations has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education arguing that black and Latino students, have been disproportionately excluded from New York City’s specialized high schools because of an imbalanced admissions policy that selects