How Your Elite-Public-School Sausage Gets Made

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Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As a public-school student in the city, your options for an elite education at one of the handful of specialized high schools are limited. Either you’re an excellent test-taker, or your parents can pay for you to become an excellent test-taker. Sometimes, it starts even earlier. To get into Hunter College High School, Elena Kagan's alma mater, students must take a single, "notoriously difficult" teacher-written test. It's different than the one used to get into Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and essentially the same test that Hunter students, grades 7 to 12, have been taking for decades. Until this year, the school relied solely on administrators to spread the word about applying. Hunter's director tells the New York Times that the test “isn’t a good indicator of giftedness.” Because of this cordoned-off approach to admissions, racial diversity at Hunter is disappearing. The city's many-children-left-behind public-school system is 70 percent black and Hispanic. Hunter is 3 percent black and one percent Hispanic, down from 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in 1995.

The struggle to keep the public school open to, you know, the public has pitted faculty against an administration clinging to the status quo, as the Times reports. Some concessions have been made, like mailings to all city fifth-graders who scored in the top 10 percent in both the state English and math tests, instead of the ones from the right neighborhoods and with the right last names.

But things came to a boil recently when Justin Hudson, a black and Hispanic student selected by his teachers to give this year's graduation speech, took the opportunity to issue a rousing call for change in the admissions policy. His principal, Eileen Coppola, supported him. The administration, seeing the students and faculty give Hudson a standing ovation, decided to reward progress and justice and agreed to follow the faculty's suggestion to include interviews, observations, and samples of student's work. Yeah, right. No, the administration did what administrations do: They told Coppola she seemed resentful and should consider whether she was a good fit, essentially forcing her out — the third principal in five years to leave. But there is a rope to cling to from this pit of despair. Immediately after hearing that, the faculty (including Kagan's brother) gave the president who forced Coppola out a vote of no confidence.

Also, Justin Hudson for president in 2028? Some highlights:


Then he shocked his audience. “More than anything else, I feel guilty,” Mr. Hudson, who is black and Hispanic, told his 183 fellow graduates. “I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.”

They had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.” Beneficiaries of advantages, they were disproportionately from middle-class Asian and white neighborhoods known for good schools and the prevalence of tutoring.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Hey, there's always the lottery for charter schools, right? That seems to be working out well.

Diversity Debate Convulses Elite High School [NYT]