Read (Watch) Along: That Time They Booed LaGuardia Arts (Or, Curtis Chin's Tested)

UPDATE: I posted some English Language Arts packets to the Writing > Curriculum section of this website. If you're interested in reading some of my lesson plans from previous years, check them out. (Expect to find a great deal of Freudian psychoanalysis and Norse mythology. #nerdproblems)

Last week, Teach for America hosted a screening of Curtis Chin's Tested, a documentary about the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Every year, students from across New York City spend months drilling for this exam, which is the sole basis of admission for the Big Three: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These are some of the most elite high schools in the nation -- or, as one parent in Tested calls it, "the Ivy League for the rest of us." Only one in six students is admitted; competition is fierce.

We had the privilege of hearing from one of the students featured in the documentary and his mother at a post-screening Q&A. Inrii Gonzalez, now a sophomore at Stuyvesant, has an Individualized Education Plan (accommodations for special education students) and needed extra time on the SHSAT. His mother had to negotiate her way through the NYC DOE and even the state education board to make sure that her son could successfully take the exam. Inrii was admitted to Stuyvesant and just wrapped up his sophomore year. While I've never been a great believer in the SHSAT (and "high-stakes testing" in general), Inrii's mother brought up a great point. Inrii's middle school hadn't provided him with the accommodations that he needed in order to be successful. Despite the fact that he's intelligent (as proven by the fact that he's thriving at Stuyvesant), he was receiving low grades. That was enough to keep him out of screened schools (like Beacon and Bard); his only shot at a great high school education was the SHSAT.

Stanley Ng, the senior researcher on Tested, brought up another interesting point. Screened schools require in-person interviews. For students who aren't native English speakers, the interview can be the cause of great anxiety and ultimately count against them. (Ng also implied that seeing the student in-person during the interview process might lead to either conscious or unconscious racial bias in selection.) For the Asian-American students who make up the majority of the Big Three's demographics, the SHSAT could also be their best chance.

The documentary itself was well-done, and Chin should be commended for his work. However, I wanted to talk briefly about the reaction of the audience. At the end of the film, we learned that one African-American student was accepted to both Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia Arts. She decided to attend LaGuardia Arts. The audience shook their heads in disapproval; there was even some actual booing. Now, I understand that some of the audience members were Brooklyn Tech alumni and that there's probably some friendly rivalry between the specialized high schools. (Having gone to Columbia University, we were constantly belittling NYU, our neighbors to the South.) But it also made me wonder if there wasn't something larger at play.

The demographics of the Big Three have been a divisive issue in NYC. It's the reason why some politicians and educators have suggested replacing the SHSAT with portfolio reviews and interviews. Students from low-income African-American and Latino/a communities just aren't getting into these schools. Chin suggests that it's due to lack of access to satisfactory test prep programs, lack of information about the SHSAT, and lack of understanding about how hard students need to work for admission. Whatever the case, African-American and Latino/a students make up almost 70% of NYC's student population.

This year, only ten African-American students were offered spaces at Stuyvesant.

The numbers are grim. According to InsideSchools, 8% African-American and 8% Latino/a at Brooklyn Tech. 3% African-American and 6% Latino/a at Bronx Science. And an abysmal 1% African-American and 3% Latino/a at Stuyvesant.

In contrast, we have LaGuardia Arts -- the only specialized high school in NYC that does not use the SHSAT for admission. 11% African-American and 19% Latino/a. LaGuardia Arts uses a process that's more similar to a screened school. Students are required to attend an audition/interview and grades are taken into account. (Students cannot have any scores lower than an 80% on their report cards.)

Immediately, there were two reasons that I could think of why the audience might have booed LaGuardia Arts.

1. Disrespect for the Arts
I'm amazed by the amount of disrespect that the arts receive in both our schools and our communities (one probably leading to the other). The arts are, for some reason, seen as being "less than" STEM. The audience might have perceived LaGuardia Arts as being less intellectually rigorous than the Big Three, despite the fact that students from the technical theater department are frequently accepted by elite engineering departments like MIT. They might have perceived this young woman as "selling herself short" because she could have been a scientist or a physician or a computer programmer; instead, she decided that she wanted to be an artist. If that isn't deserving of a strong booing, I don't know what is.

2. Unconscious Racism
This is the one that disturbs me a little bit more. Are the Big Three seen as being superior because of their student demographics? Because they're dominated almost exclusively by Asian-American and white students? I may be guilty of this myself. Instead of encouraging students to go to our charter high school, I'm perpetually extolling the virtues of programs like Prep 9 that send high-achieving minority students to elite (and predominantly white) boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover -- even if that might not be the best fit for them. I insist that these are the schools with "name recognition," that these are the schools that will get them into the Ivy League. But why do they have "name recognition"? Because they're rich. Because they're white. And those reasons just aren't good enough.

Maybe I should thank the audience members who booed LaGuardia Arts at the screening. Even though they were way out-of-line, they forced me to check my own assumptions about which high schools are "good enough." But -- for the record, audience members -- LaGuardia Arts is one of the best high schools I've ever had the privilege of working with. And yes, I've worked with students from Stuyvesant.

Day Nine (31 Days of Trip Planning): Booked my Megabus ticket from NYC to Buffalo, NY. (At the end of my Ireland/UK trip, I've decided to spend the remainder of the summer with my family. I'll travel directly to Fulbright Orientation in Washington, DC and then return to NYC for summer professional development.)

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