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The burden on elite high schools: They must change their cultures to welcome students of all backgrounds

2019-08-19

Make these schools better. (Susan Watts)

Since Mayor de Blasio unveiled his proposal to phase out the Specialized High Schools Admission Test last June, countless supporters and critics have joined the debate, arguing passionately for or against the efficacy of single-test admissions to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and five other testing specialized high schools, and providing a myriad of statistics and perspectives from alumni, students, parents and educators.

What’s been largely missing from the conversation is what happens if, and when, students get there. Although the competitive nature of admissions and rigorous academics inherent in attending a specialized high school challenges students, it can also prevent them from receiving a well-rounded education.

Given the current lack of diversity at these schools, far too many current students from different backgrounds don’t feel welcome. Therefore, discussing the cultures and climates of the specialized high schools is just as important as discussing their admissions processes.

The Welcoming School Climate Initiative was the only aspect of the mayor’s six-point reform initiative that focused on the experience of underrepresented students after they entered a specialized high school.

The DOE recruited students for an advisory board, with the goal of using the experiences and knowledge of students currently attending specialized high schools to develop policies and programs to improve the school climate. During the spring, student representatives from each of the eight specialized high schools met every Saturday to develop student-centered policies to improve the climate at all eight schools.

We, the three authors of this op-ed and members of the Welcoming School Climate Student Advisory Board — a group comprised of more than 35 student representatives from the eight testing specialized high schools — are using our voice to share the urgent priorities for reform the group has identified.

Over the course of our meetings, many students lamented the lack of diversity at our schools, specifically with regard to black and Latino students. They shared that the lack of representation at their schools created environments that bred racism and other forms of prejudice both inside and outside the classroom.

This atmosphere does not foster the inclusivity and diversity that all New York City public high schools ought to embody, and inhibits underrepresented students from experiencing their education as equals. While the paucity of black and Latino and Latina students at the specialized schools is certainly reflective of larger, systemic flaws in equitable access to New York’s education system, their absence also prevents white and Asian students at those schools from receiving an education that lives up to the spirit of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Each student brings with his or her presence a voice to be heard and a lesson to be learned. Although the importance of understanding, respecting and working with diverse groups of people might not be reflected on multiple choice tests, it is essential for students whose generation is the most diverse in our country’s history.

Most of the students on the board also expressed dissatisfaction with the way their schools treated their mental health. They explained that teachers overload students with homework, leaving them little time to get a healthy amount of sleep, especially after accounting for sports practice, extracurricular activities and family obligations. Moreover, when students struggle with mental health, their schools lack the ability — and, often, the desire — to accommodate their needs and prioritize their mental well-being. This hinders countless students from achieving their full potential.

To confront these problems, our board drafted a report that prioritizes students’ needs and emphasizes specific policies that push our schools to address them. Our recommendations included mandating anti-bias training for students and faculty, hiring more mental-health professionals and social workers to support students, and creating diversity and equity committees to assess and monitor the environments at our schools.

We believe that when students are empowered to advocate for their needs and facilitate their own education, they can achieve great things.

Bavalsky is a rising senior at Brooklyn Technical High School. Ebanks is a rising senior at Stuyvesant High School. Mustapha is a rising junior at The Brooklyn Latin School.