Stuyvesant High School once loomed large for high school senior Hiba Hanoune.
The school is one of New York City’s specialized high schools, long considered crown jewels of the city’s education system. The schools also look very different than the city, with just 11 percent of admissions offers for next year’s freshman class going to black and Hispanic students.
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has taken some steps diversify those student bodies, including expanding programs that provide students with test prep. The numbers haven’t budged, though.
In front of a standing-room crowd at the Brooklyn Public Library, Hanoune recently shared her less-than-ideal experience with the city’s DREAM program, which is supposed to help students prepare for the specialized high school exam — and explained how she eventually created a successful high school experience without Stuyvesant. The event was organized by Teens Take Charge, a group of students who advocate for changes in the school system.
In the time since Hanoune took the specialized high school admissions test, the city has changed the exam in an attempt to align it more closely with what eighth-grade students are expected to learn in class. The scrambled paragraphs that Hanoune encountered, for example, are gone. But advocates question whether the test has really changed in meaningful ways.
Here’s an expanded version of what Hanoune had to say.
It was September of 2014. There I was, the salutatorian of my graduating eighth-grade class, preparing myself for admission to my dream school, Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant was that one school that was going to help support me and set a springboard for my future endeavors.
My family wasn’t well off financially. Often times, we struggled and there was constant worry over whether we had food in the fridge or we had school supplies. I wasn’t expecting to enroll in a Kaplan or a Princeton Review course like my fellow affluent classmates. Nevertheless, I persisted. I sought out a free program that’s funded by the Department of Education called DREAM. Upon hearing the name of the program, I knew this was my chance to really meet my goal. I was one step closer to Stuyvesant.
Every Saturday morning, I would take a two-hour train ride to the site where the program was held. My excitement and eagerness faded upon finding out that my course was set in a dilapidated building, and my so-called instructor didn’t seem like she was there for the purpose of instructing but rather for the paycheck. We were given a workbook and told to start on page 2. I distinctly remember inquiring to my instructor about a problem in the workbook, and as a response, my book was thrown back and I was told to figure it out myself.
So there I was, figuring it out myself. I remember just copying off of my classmates because I didn’t want to hand in a blank workbook. We would have about 30 minutes of instruction; it was very minimal. The instructor just basically reiterated everything that was in the textbook.
After that first summer in DREAM, I was transferred to another site, where the instructors were better. But I quickly found that I couldn’t keep up with my classmates. The instructor just completely ignored the fact that some people were lagging. English was my stronghold so I did pretty well, but when it came time for math instruction I felt like she was just speeding through.
When we took practice tests, I would get discouraged by my low scores. My DREAM classmates went to more prestigious middle schools — screened middle schools that select their students based on their grades and test scores. When I tried to apply to a screened middle school, my immigrant parents discouraged me. They just weren’t very aware of the middle school process and worried about me leaving our neighborhood.
October rolls in. I show up to the test with two sharpened No. 2 pencils and little-to-no knowledge or practice for the test. I remember the morning of the test, my dad drove me to Dunkin’ Donuts and told me, ‘You got this.’ I sat down, and when I got to the first section, there was a scrambled paragraph. I thought, ‘Oh no.’ That feeling didn’t budge as I noticed that other kids were speeding through their questions.
November, December, January, February, March. Results day.
I opened my letter to find out my score amounted to nothing in comparison to my classmates. As classmates shouted that they’d been accepted to Staten Island Tech, or Bronx Science, my letter revealed that I was matched to my zoned high school. There I was, the salutatorian, matched to the zoned program.
My dad had all the confidence that I would get accepted to a specialized high school, so I only applied to my neighborhood high school. I think that reflected my parents’ lack of knowledge around the issue.
Although I didn’t get accepted to a specialized high school, I constantly told myself, ‘You can make it anywhere. You just have to make use of what’s available.’ I joined activities that interested me and stimulated critical thinking including mock trial, Model United Nations, and moot court — a law competition.
In my high school, there is a major, major disparity. There is an honors academy, which I attend, and a zoned program. Honors students have first priority to take honors classes and also have access to Advanced Placement classes. In the honors program, I feel challenged and stimulated. It has been very rewarding, but I don’t think it’s fair that some of my peers don’t have access to those classes just because some test scores or grades from their middle school years mean they don’t qualify.
This fall, I will be heading to Columbia University to study human rights. Attending Columbia was just a dream that I didn’t think was attainable until I got my acceptance letter.
The specialized high school exam tests material that would not be known to your average eighth-grader — unless a prep course was taken. Yes, the specialized high school test is race-blind. Yes, the specialized high school test is bias-blind. But we cannot forget that only 10 percent of students who make up these schools are black or Latino. The dichotomy speaks for itself. Something must be wrong.
This barricades financially disadvantaged students’ opportunities to attend an elite high school. Claiming that the test is not biased sounds like an absolutely valid justification for keeping it in place. But the test actually subjugates thousands of qualified students simply because of their lack of resources and for reasons beyond their control. One test is not and should not be the determining factor of one’s success.
Hiba Hanoune is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.