Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Final Part “What was the goal of these posts?”

About six weeks ago I began a project that I had been putting off for several years. As a blogger who has opinions on pretty much everything related to education I felt like my failure to write about this topic was not staying true to myself.

I started teaching at Stuyvesant in April of 2002. Though it is the fourth school I’ve taught at in my career, I only taught at those other schools for five years combined. So my career has mostly been teaching at Stuyvesant and it has been a career I have been proud of. Though the student body was over 70% Asian for all the years I have been there, it was something that wasn’t talked about so much. I had heard that in the 1950s the school was mostly Jewish and then 50 years later the demographics changed to mostly Asian. It was just what it was, people had different theories about what caused the shift and for most of my years it wasn’t considered to be a problem. But lack of Latino and Black students in the top specialized school in New York City in a system where 70% of the students are Latino and Black is definitely a symptom of a big problem.

I’ve read a lot of editorials by people on all sides of education politics that have criticized the specialized schools admissions process as being unfair at best and racist at worst. As a teacher at Stuyvesant for all these years I had to really think about this. If deep down I really felt that I was participating in a racist system I hope I would have the courage to resign and transfer to a school that was not racist. I can’t speak for any of the other teachers at Stuyvesant or any of the other specialized high schools but I would think that all of us think about this anytime we read the annual article about how there were less than 10 Black students offered a spot at Stuyvesant.

Certainly nobody is going to feel bad for me for saying this, but one of the things that drew me to Stuyvesant was the prestige. When I would be at my mother’s apartment complex and one of her friends would be around, my mother would proudly say “This is my son. He teaches at Stuyvesant.” And the friend would be impressed and my mother would beam and I would feel kind of proud too. It wasn’t easy to get a job at Stuyvesant, there was a lot of competition. And more than just getting the job, I’ve been proud of myself for all the good teaching I’ve done over the years. I’ve really given it my all. If it were some school that the friend never heard of, they probably wouldn’t be as impressed. Maybe my mother wouldn’t even mention what my profession was if it wasn’t a famous school. I know that teaching at Stuyvesant doesn’t make me some kind of hero but until recently I hadn’t thought that it could make me some kind of villain.

So of course I’m going to be less open to the idea that Stuyvesant is a symbol of oppression and that I should be ashamed of myself for working there.

One of the comments on one of the posts in this series basically said that it seems to just be a way for me to make myself feel better about working at Stuyvesant. Maybe that is a part of it. I have a lot of respect for many of the people who believe that the current system with the SHSAT is as bad as other things in education that I am very opposed to, like using Value Added based on standardized tests to determine teacher salaries so I do worry that this specialized high school system is just too personal to me that my opinions on it can’t really be taken seriously.

In this final post I’m not going to summarize what I said in the other thirteen posts for the same reason that I didn’t just write one summary instead of the series. One summary will very much oversimplify my thoughts on it. I tried to explore all the sides of the issue and for sure I did not come to the conclusion that the current system cannot be improved. I’m sure that some of my arguments seemed insensitive or naive or just in denial of reality. Maybe twenty years from now there won’t be specialized high schools and the elimination of specialized schools will be the turning point that helps all students and people will look back at this series and say “Can you believe that a guy who was considered to be a public school crusader actually tried to defend many aspects of the old system?” Maybe.

But right now in the summer of 2021 I’ve put my thoughts down. Maybe my own thoughts will evolve over the years, but this is what they are right now.

I’m a teacher. I’ve taught at four schools in my career and I’ve loved each of those schools. I’ve kept in touch with students from all the different schools, every so often a former student from one of the schools, now a 40 year old man or woman, finds me on Facebook and we become Facebook friends. I’ve never thought that my Stuyvesant students are somehow more worthy of my attention than the students I taught at other schools. Whether it was students from Deady Middle School in Houston, Furr High School in Houston, or Jefferson High School in Denver, I respected and cared about my students.

Throughout these posts I have offered suggestions about how the specialized high school admissions process can be made more authentic and more fair. Maybe one day I will be invited to serve on some kind of committee that looks into this and I can be a person who has a skill of asking the right questions to get past some of the oversimplified arguments for or against the current system. If you’re reading this right now, thanks for reading. I hope you believe that I wasn’t trying to be sneaky and use rhetorical devices to convince you that somehow the current system is perfect the way it is. I just wanted to give my thoughts, unpolished and maybe even contradictory as they may have been.

To see a list of all the posts in this series, click here.

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4 Responses to Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Final Part “What was the goal of these posts?”

  1. Edward Antoine says:

    Gary,
    Thanks for taking the time and being willing to openly share you thoughts on this very contentious issue. Your efforts are appreciated.
    Best,
    Ed

  2. mjpledger says:

    I think all this is starting from the wrong place. Whether the “wrong” type of people get in really depends on what the point of the school is. If the school had a mission statement then I think it would be much clearer about whether the student body has the “right” demographics. Is it solely for the good of the individual (demographics don’t matter) or for the good of society (the spoils should be shared more equitably)?

    Looking in from very far away – the thing that seems to attract people to the school is that they can make up for their lack of social capital (e.g. access to the “old boy’s network”) by achieving academic success.

    That’s why I am interested in who gets invited to attend but doesn’t choose too. I can see that Black and Latino kids would feel a lack of support because they have such a small peer group and choose not to attend even if they are confident in their academic abilities. And I can see some kids not attending because they want the “high school experience” (team sports, arts clubs, social life) rather then being a slave to academics through high school and college.

  3. Ben Wheeler says:

    I greatly appreciated the spirit of exploration in these posts. At times they reinforced my thinking and gave voice to things I’d thought less coherently than Gary, and at other times they challenged my thinking. Thanks.

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