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How it feels to be an Asian student in an elite public school

  • >> Michael Powell, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-01-26 14:35:23 BdST

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Tausifa Haque, a 17-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who makes a one-and-a-half hour journey to Brooklyn Technical High School, at an elevated subway stop in the Bronx, Jan 7, 2022. Brooklyn Tech is subject to persistent criticism and demands for far-reaching reform, along with other test-screened public high schools across the nation. Sarah Blesener/The New York Times

Tausifa Haque, a 17-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, walks in the early morning from her family’s apartment in the Bronx to the elevated subway and rides south to Brooklyn, a journey of 1 1/2 hours.

There she joins a river of teenagers who pour into Brooklyn Technical High School — Bengali and Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese, Sinhalese and Russian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, West Indian and African American. The cavernous eight-story building holds about 5,850 students, one of the largest and most academically rigorous high schools in the United States.

Her father drives a cab; her mother is a lunchroom attendant. This school is a repository of her dreams and theirs. “This is my great chance,” Tausifa said. “It’s my way out.”

Brooklyn Tech is also subject to persistent criticism and demands for far-reaching reform, along with other test-screened public high schools across the nation.

Liberal politicians, school leaders and organisers argue such schools are bastions of elitism and, because of low enrollment of Black and Latino students, functionally racist and segregated. Sixty-three percent of the city’s public school students are Black and Latino, yet they account for just 15% of Brooklyn Tech’s population.

For Asian students, the percentages are flipped: They make up 61% of Brooklyn Tech, although they account for 18% of the public school population.

Some critics imply that the presence of so many South and East Asian students, along with the white students, accentuates this injustice. Such charges reached a heated pitch a few years ago when a prominent white liberal council member said such schools were overdue for “a racial reckoning.”

Richard Carranza, who served as New York’s schools chancellor until last year, was more caustic. “I just don’t buy into the narrative,” he said, “that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

But several dozen in-depth interviews with Asian and Black students at Brooklyn Tech paint a more complicated portrait and often defy the political characterisations put forth in New York and across the country. These students speak of personal journeys and struggles at a far remove from the assumptions that dominate the raging battles over the future of their schools.

Their critiques often proved searching; most Asian students spoke of wanting more Black and Latino classmates.

Fully 63% of Brooklyn Tech’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Census data shows Asians have the lowest median income in the city, and a majority speak a language other than English at home.

The admissions debate reaches far beyond New York’s selective high schools.

The San Francisco Board of Education has discarded a merit-based admissions policy and substituted a lottery at the highly regarded Lowell High School, where 55% of students were of Asian descent. “When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardised testing,” a board member opined, “those are racist systems.”

Officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, replaced the entrance exam at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology with a combination of grades and socioeconomic criteria. The next year, the percentage of incoming Black and Latino students jumped and the percentage of Asian students, who skew more middle and upper-middle class than in New York, declined. White student enrollment increased.

When Asian parents sued, a federal judge told their lawyer, “Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral and that it's designed to affect the racial composition.”

That case is awaiting a decision.

Like these other institutions, Brooklyn Tech, which sits in the haute brownstone neighbourhood of Fort Greene, is regarded as a diamond in the city’s educational crown, along with the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.

The school boasts many advantages, as most students are well aware. Nearly all balked, however, at describing it as segregated, not least because the descriptor “Asian” encompasses disparate ethnicities, cultures, languages and skin colours.

Tausifa looks at the multihued sea of students pouring through the doors of Tech. She expressed puzzlement that a school where three-quarters of the students are nonwhite could be described as segregated. “I have classes with students of all demographics and skin colours, and friends who speak different languages,” she said. “To call this segregation does not make sense.”

To which Salma Mohamed, a child of immigrants from Alexandria, Egypt, and a graduate of Brooklyn Tech, added, “It’s very interesting to me that the word segregated is used in a school that is predominantly Asian. It connotes white and class privilege. That’s not us.”

THE DEBATE OVER AN ENTRANCE EXAM

Critics of specialised high schools argue that these institutions are out of step with the zeitgeist and educational practice. Better to cast aside standardised tests and seek heterogenous classes in neighbourhood high schools, they argue, than to cloister top students. Some studies, they say, show that struggling students gain from the presence of talented outliers. And the entrance exam, which includes no writing component, has fuelled the growth of a private and inequitable tutoring industry.

What of the bright child who has a bad test day? Or a teenager who lacks the money to seek tutoring?

“Educationally, we don’t need these schools,” said David Bloomfield, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “These students cannot be in a bubble. They need to be in a more diverse student body, where you could have advanced classes.”

Those who champion specialised high schools point to alumni who became top scientists, among them 14 Nobel Prize laureates. With few exceptions these were the children of working-class and immigrant families. The best students, they argue, should press as far ahead as brains and curiosity might take them.

The mayor and school officials preside over a system of 1.1 million schoolchildren, they add, in which only half are proficient in math and 24% of Black students fail to graduate. As Americans struggle to stay competitive with other nations in science, technology and mathematics, why obsess about the anti-egalitarian sins of a handful of high-performing schools that hold 6% of high school students?

That said, the dwindling number of Black and Latino students at these high schools is a great concern and a mystery. Bill de Blasio, when he was mayor of New York, suggested the heart of the problem lay with a biased entrance exam.

That does not reckon with history. Decades ago, when crime and socioeconomic conditions were far graver than they are today, Black and Latino teenagers passed the examination in great numbers. In 1981, nearly two-thirds of Brooklyn Tech’s students were Black and Latino, and that percentage hovered at 50% for another decade.

Black and Latino students account for 10% of the students at Bronx Science; that percentage was more than twice as high in the 1970s and '80s.

To understand this decline involves a trek back through decades of policy choices, as city officials, pushed by an anti-tracking movement, rolled back accelerated and honours programmes and tried to reform gifted programs, particularly in nonwhite districts.

Black alumni of Brooklyn Tech argue that this progressive-minded movement handicapped precisely those Black and Latino students most likely to pass the test. Some poor, majority Black and Latino districts now lack a single gifted and talented program.

Citywide, elementary school gifted classes enroll about 16,000 students and are 75% white and Asian.

Of late, the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, has proposed adding new gifted and talented programs in Black and Latino neighbourhoods and increasing the number of specialised high schools. City officials recently created five more such schools.

Denice Ware, a daughter of Jamaican and Panamanian immigrants and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, grew up in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, an impoverished neighbourhood. She was class salutatorian of her middle school for gifted students; the top 10 graduates that year, all Black, gained admittance to specialised high schools.

“Don’t tell me Black and Latino children can’t get into these schools,” she said. “Our teachers made sure we were prepared.”

GETTING IN AND STAYING IN

A visitor steps inside the doors to Brooklyn Tech and finds the honour roll list for last year’s senior class, the surnames offering variations on an old story: There is a Dong and a Doogan, a Goyer and a Huynh, a Subah and a Wai.

The specialised high schools serve as a homing beacon for immigrant and working-class teenagers. The 1950s and 1960s saw the arrival of Holocaust survivors and West Indian families. Later waves rolled in from Asia and West Africa.

“My parents didn’t even know what Brooklyn Tech was,” recalled Sophia Wing Lum Chok, whose parents grew up in Malaysia. She learned of the test on her own.

“They would have been very happy if I went anywhere,” she said. “I didn’t have an adult figure in my life who did not work a blue-collar job.”

Chok, 19, flourished at Brooklyn Tech and studies at Yale University. Her experience was anomalous in one sense: Many immigrant parents view the specialised schools as a holy grail.

Hasiba Haq, 28, lives in Kensington, a low-slung Brooklyn neighbourhood known as Little Bangladesh. Her parents grew up on an island in the Bay of Bengal. Her father worked as a taxi driver when she was a student. She attended middle school in well-to-do Park Slope. “I became aware of internalised shame at not being white and wealthy,” she said. “I learned kids did not sit at home in summer; they went to ‘camp.’ ”

By the time she turned 11, her family and neighbours talked of the high school examination. Her parents enrolled her in a tutoring centre, a rigorous boot camp with teenage Asian teachers drawn from the specialised high schools. The sticker price was $4,000. Her parents bargained hard but still paid a small fortune.

“It was every weekend and classes over the summer,” Haq said. “Everyone in the community knew it was your turn to take the test.”

She got in, and the local Bengali newspaper ran her photograph and those of other Bengali teenagers who gained admittance to specialised high schools. “Family honour is tied to it,” she said. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

When she walked into Brooklyn Tech, she felt her shoulders drop. “I could finally breathe,” she said. “I was around kids like me.”

There were Bengalis and Pakistanis and Indians, the Brown Squad. There was a Latino Squad, a Russian Squad, a Black Squad, similar in their yearnings. She stayed up past midnight doing homework, one advanced course piled atop another.

“It was more difficult than college,” said Haq, a Fordham University graduate. “It was a hustle-and-grind culture.”

She is now 28 years old and a producer at TED Talks. Like many alumni, she speaks of crosscurrents of ambivalence and pride about surviving that crucible. Folk wisdom has it that South Asians dominate the test, but reality is messier. Many students in her tutoring classes fell short, and parent and child cried together. Some students dropped out.

More than 23,500 teenagers took the specialised high school test last year. Roughly 41% were Black and Latino, and 34% were Asian.

The examination can be problematic, as it requires knowledge of algebra, which is not offered to many middle school students. Haq was lucky enough to get offered that course. Tausifa, the teenager from the Bronx, was not. Had her parents not paid for tutoring classes, she would have been at sea in that portion of the test.

“I thought I was the smartest kid in the world,” Tausifa said, laughing at her conceit. “Then I understood I did not know enough to pass the test without tutoring.”

She realised something else: Some of her middle school classmates had no chance. “One Black classmate, really smart, did not even realise there was a test,” she said. “There were uneven advantages.”

BEING A BLACK STUDENT AT TECH

Diane Nunez, who is Black, and her son, Ricardo, 15, share a goal: to maximize his education and get him into a top college. His road was uncertain. He applied to the highly competitive Mark Twain Middle School and scored in the 97th percentile. The test cutoff was the 98th percentile.

When Ricardo was in seventh grade, Nunez received a guidance counsellor’s email intended for another family. It mentioned a city-run tutoring course for the high school test. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Ricardo is smart enough for this,’” she said. “Why isn’t he getting offered this?”

Nunez dug into her savings and enrolled Ricardo in a private tutoring agency favoured by Asian parents. Ricardo understood the lost weekends of study it would entail. “That was the most challenging academics I’d ever done,” Ricardo said. “But I knew where I wanted to end up.”

Once at Brooklyn Tech, he joined the Black student union. “I don’t feel like a minority,” he said. “We resist being pitted against each other at this school.”

Rachel Germany, a social studies teacher at Brooklyn Tech who is Black, serves as adviser to that student union. She is moved by the struggles of all her students. “I appreciate the diversity and love these kids,” she said. “Having said that, the dearth of Black and Latinx students in a public high school feels palpable and strange.”

City officials have long sought to arrest the decline in Black and Latino students at specialised high schools. In the mid-1990s, a chancellor started a tutoring program, to much applause. Officials today could not say what became of that.

The Department of Education runs another tutoring initiative, known as the Dream Program, which six students described as substandard, a pale shadow of the rigor of the tutoring academies. “The teachers did not even know what the exam consisted of,” said Nabila Hoque, a senior at Brooklyn Tech. “They handed us out-of-date workbooks.”

Nabila, whose father is disabled and whose mother works in a uniform shop, enrolled at a tutoring academy. She was recently accepted at Duke University on a full scholarship.

Tutoring is no replacement for identifying gifted students and placing them in accelerated classes.

“There’s a big literature on the value of accelerated classes, and it’s very favourable,” said James H Borland, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. “There’s a strong research base that shows it’s very beneficial.”

Jumaane Williams, who is Black and resides on the political left — where support is infrequently heard for the specialised exam — is the New York City public advocate. He describes himself as a public school baby, from kindergarten to his master's, and he is insistent that he could not have achieved any of it without Brooklyn Tech.

“The most clear failure has been establishing an accessible pipeline” for Black and Latino students, he wrote in The Daily News. “In the past gifted-and-talented programs in middle schools have been a reliable pathway.”

Horace Davis, a former Con Edison executive who is Black, spoke of his boyhood in East Flatbush, a working-class neighbourhood in Brooklyn. He got into accelerated classes in his neighbourhood school, and teachers pushed hard.

His sister and best friend encouraged him to take the test, Davis said.

“You have four years of courses at Brooklyn Tech taught at the college level,” he said. “It’s not just that you’re surrounded by smart students; you start to think of college and your life in a different way.”

AN UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD

Little comes easy at a hothouse such as Brooklyn Tech. The weight of parental and teacher expectation make for much stress. Some fall to cheating; some leave.

“I got so much out of that school,” said Zarnaab Javaid, who is of Pakistani descent and is now at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “What brings me hesitation is the sheer number of kids who were not happy.”

Alumni and students alike harbour the sense that as hard as they work, they benefit from unfair advantages. They point to college-level course offerings, a handsome moot court for the law class, and the battered robotics lab that produces students who win local and national competitions. Most private schools have more plushly appointed facilities, but not public high schools.

These students chafe, though, at the notion that their success can be explained away by saying, well, Asian students test well.

“You can’t just say Asian people are culturally predisposed to more education,” Javaid said.

These students voice a fear that harks back to earlier generations of working-class Jewish students who dealt with antisemitism. If officials toss the test and substitute portfolios, interviews and extracurricular accomplishments, it could be easier to dismiss Asians as faceless “grinds,” the students said.

“Many immigrant working families don’t have the time to get a portfolio together for their kids,” said Germany, the social studies teacher at Brooklyn Tech.

However stressful a high-stakes test, it means a surname is no obstacle. No one knows they are Bengali, Tibetan, Nigerian or Tajik.

Students and teachers spoke of alternatives. Establish variable passing scores so that economically disadvantaged, Latino or Black districts face somewhat lower bars than a wealthy, majority-white district on the Upper West Side. Offer the exam to all eighth graders as a matter of course and improve tutoring. Build out gifted and talented in nonwhite districts.

Again and again, the conversation returned to the broader problem. The elementary and middle schools must prepare more students to compete at the highest level.

“Bring grades or class rank into it if you need to; we should strive for a world where we don’t need Brooklyn Tech,” said Ayaan Ali, a senior whose parents emigrated from Pakistan. “But abolishing the test is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.”

Haq, the TED Talks producer, sees a mirror turning inward as students and teachers question the test and the toll it takes on students who feel a constant pressure to succeed. To dismiss the success of these students as one of segregated advantage, however, draws from her a shake of the head.

“We’re really trying to have this nuanced conversation about race and class and opportunity,” she said, “We haven’t found the words for it yet.”

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