To Be Black at Stuyvesant High


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LIKE a city unto itself, Stuyvesant High School, in Lower Manhattan, is broken into neighborhoods, official and otherwise. The math department is on the 4th of its 10 floors; biology is on the 7th. Seniors congregate by the curved mint wall off the second-floor atrium, next to lockers that are such prime real estate that students trade them for $100 or more. Sophomores are relegated to the sixth floor.

In Stuyvesant slang, the hangouts are known as “bars.” Some years ago, the black students took over the radiators outside the fifth-floor cafeteria, and the place soon came to be known as the “chocolate bar,” lending it an air of legitimacy in the school’s labyrinth of cliques and turfs.

It did not last long. This year, Asian freshmen displaced the black students in a strength-in-numbers coup in which whispers of indignation were the sole expression of resistance. There was no point arguing, said Rudi-Ann Miller, a 17-year-old senior who came to New York from Jamaica and likes to style her hair in a bun, slick and straight, like the ballerina she once dreamed of becoming.

“The Asian kids, they’re just everywhere,” she said.

When the bell rings and the school’s 3,295 students spill out of classrooms into the maze of hallways, escalators and stairs like ants in a farm, blacks stand out because they are so rare. Rudi was one of 64 black students four years ago when she entered Stuyvesant, long considered New York City’s flagship public school. She is now one of 40.

Asians, on the other hand, make up 72.5 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body (they are 13.7 percent of the city’s overall public school population), a staggering increase from 1970, when they were 6 percent of Stuyvesant students, according to state enrollment statistics. Back then, white students made up 79 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment; this year, they are 24 percent, and 14.9 percent systemwide.

Hispanic students are 40.3 percent of the system. Currently, they make up 2.4 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment, while blacks, who make up 32 percent of the city’s public school students, are 1.2 percent.

New York City has eight specialized high schools whose admission is based entirely on the results of an entrance exam, a meritocratic system that does not consider race or ethnicity. The top score on the exam is 800. In recent years, the cutoff for Stuyvesant has been around 560; Rudi scored 594.

Earning a spot at Stuyvesant is unquestionably a badge of honor, sort of a secret knock to an exclusive club. As high school admissions decisions are revealed across the city in the coming week, many people are concerned that it is a club that black students — and, to a similar extent, Latinos — have an increasingly hard time cracking.

No one claims that the disparity is caused by overt discrimination. But in a school that is devised to attract the best of the best, parents and educators alike find the demographics troubling. It has become a question of perception as to who belongs.

The school’s parent coordinator, Harvey Blumm, said that when he visited middle schools whose enrollments were overwhelmingly black and Latino, it was not uncommon to find students who had never heard about the specialized high school exam; or to meet students who had signed up for the exam, but had never thought of taking a practice test or prep course — something common among white and Asian students; or to have guidance counselors tell him that Stuyvesant “isn’t for our kids.”

RUDI, who lives in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, attended sixth and seventh grades in Jamaica, and eighth grade in Mount Vernon, a Westchester County suburb. Her father, Donovan Miller, a director of accounting at Bronx Community College, recalled asking a colleague for advice about enrolling Rudi, the youngest of his three children, in “the best New York City high school.” The colleague advised Mr. Miller that he had to sign her up for the specialized high school exam and, if he wanted to improve her odds, to have her take some kind of test preparation program.

Many Stuyvesant students start preparing for the exam months, even years, in advance. There are after-school, weekend and summer classes run by large companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review, as well as by neighborhood outfits like Aim Academy, in the predominantly Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens, and the Khan’s Tutorial branch in nearby Jackson Heights, home to thousands of families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Rudi took Kaplan’s 12-week program, which met on Saturdays at Fordham University, at a cost of $750, the summer after seventh grade. (Students take the exam in October of their eighth-grade year.) Her tutor, a Stuyvesant graduate, persuaded her to make the school her first choice.

Her mother, Annmarie Miller, a nursing assistant at a hospital in the Bronx, recalled a cousin’s reaction when she mentioned Rudi’s pick: “You have to be Chinese or Indian to get in there.” A co-worker, also black, “said the exam is built to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math, and black people can’t do math,” Mrs. Miller said.

Rudi said she has never felt uncomfortable at Stuyvesant, but she has felt puzzled. She has been the only black person in most of her classes, and often goes hours without seeing another. The school’s attendance sheets have names and pictures of the students, and she said teachers were quick to learn who she is; there are few others like her, she said.

For Rudi, being black at Stuyvesant has been a journey of self-discovery. In Jamaica, as in parts of the Bronx, it is not skin color that distinguishes people, she said, but the car they drive, the neighborhood they live in or the job they have.

At school, she embraced her racial identity, becoming president last May of the Black Students League, the smallest of the school’s four diversity clubs, which usually draws fewer than 10 regulars to its weekly meetings. She had run unopposed.

Rudi said the league wasn’t “about black power or anything like that,” but to “make Stuy aware of our community and our culture.”

It has been a frustrating task.

As part of Black History Month, the league screened an hourlong documentary, “Slavery and the Law,” which chronicles the status of blacks from colonial times through the civil rights era. There were 100 chairs in front of the pull-down screen at Stuyvesant’s sixth-floor library; 15 students showed up.

“We’ve just never had the numbers to make it work,” Rudi lamented.

Rudi’s paternal grandfather arrived in America in 1968 and ultimately became a citizen. He paved the way for her parents, who arrived in 2006 to build their future — in a house in the suburbs at first, then just over the city line in a suburban-seeming slice of the Bronx, on a street of children-at-play signs and matching brick homes. Rudi stayed behind in Jamaica to finish seventh grade, on a government scholarship at Campion College, a school her father described as the best in Jamaica, with her sister, Nadia, who was finishing college. (They have an older brother, who still lives there.)

Rudi landed at Kennedy International Airport on July 4, 2007, to live her parents’ American dream. Nadia, who arrived a year later, gave modeling a try, and graduated from flight school before she discovered she was afraid of heights. Now she works at a bank and is considering medical school.

“Have you ever seen a doctor who’s unemployed?” Nadia, 25, asked their mother one night before dinner.

Rudi said, “My sister is definitely smarter than me.” Nadia said Rudi worked harder.

In January, a week before her midyear exams, Rudi e-mailed a friend, “I’m STRESSED and SLEEP DEPRIVED! In fact, I won’t be going to sleep tonight (second night in a row. … Oh, well!)”

By then, she had already been accepted via early admission to Yale, her first choice. Nadia could not understand why Rudi did not just coast until graduation.

“I don’t want to be an embarrassment to my teachers,” Rudi said.

She has also had enough of the grumbling at Stuyvesant that black students do better in the college-admissions game because of their skin color.

YEAR after year, certain middle schools in New York — Mark Twain Gifted and Talented in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and the Christa McAuliffe Middle School in nearby Bensonhurst — send dozens of students to Stuyvesant, according to Mr. Blumm, the parent coordinator. (Last year, 112 students from Mark Twain and 85 from Christa McAuliffe enrolled at Stuyvesant, he said.) But years can go by without a single student from District 7, in a poor and heavily immigrant section of the South Bronx, earning admission.

Sometimes, Mr. Blumm said, blacks and Latinos who do well enough on the entrance exam to get into Stuyvesant are lured away by prestigious private high schools, which offer them full scholarships and none of the issues that even elite public schools have to contend with, like tight budgets and overcrowding. Last year, 11 black students enrolled. Eleanor Archie, an assistant principal who is black, said it was the fewest she can recall in her more than 20 years at Stuyvesant.

“That’s what we keep worrying about,” Ms. Archie said. “It keeps getting smaller and smaller.”

Opraha Miles, who was president of the Black Students League before her graduation from Stuyvesant in 2010, said she feared the club would disappear for lack of members and interest. She said she used to have to “hunt people down,” dragging them from the chocolate bar to the league’s meetings to ensure a quorum.

Ms. Miles, now 19 and a sophomore at Wesleyan University, remembered a discussion the league hosted when she was at Stuyvesant on the school’s demographics, during which an Asian boy said, she recalled, “Something to the effect that it wasn’t our fault, but that blacks aren’t smart enough; they don’t work hard enough” to get in.

“It still stings,” she said.

In a separate discussion about their dwindling ranks, Ms. Miles said, a black student suggested, “Why not go to the middle schools people like us attend and tell the kids about Stuyvesant?”

Stanley Teitel, the school principal, excused Ms. Miles and several others from class for a few hours so they could visit a school in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where the group spoke to an auditorium packed with sixth and seventh graders, fielding questions about what it was like to go to a school that was the stuff of legend, and if it was really that hard to get in.

The city does not track the race and ethnicity of students who take the specialized high school exam, only of those who receive offers from one of the schools, said a spokesman for the city’s Education Department. In 2010, 28,280 students took the test; 5,404 scored high enough to earn a slot. The department did not have race or ethnicity information for 979 of those with sufficiently high scores because they came from private schools or from outside the city, and questions of race and ethnicity are not part of the exam application. But of the remainder, 47 percent were Asian, 23 percent were white, 6 percent were Hispanic, and 5 percent were black, according to city records.

Over the years, there have been a host of efforts to increase the number of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant and the other large specialized high schools in the city, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School, like making interviews and grade-point averages part of the admissions process. At Brooklyn Tech, 10 percent of the 5,332 students today are black — sizable in the realm of specialized high schools, but also a big drop from 1999-2000, when 24 percent were black. At Bronx Science, 3.5 percent of the 3,013 students are black, down from 9 percent in 1999-2000.

The number of blacks at Stuyvesant peaked in 1975, when they made up 12 percent of the school’s enrollment, or 303 of the school’s 2,536 students. In 1980, there were 212 black students; in 1990, 147; in 2000, 109; and in 2005, 66, state records show.

Lisa Mullins, who graduated from Stuyvesant in 1977 and is among the core members of its Black Alumni Association, suggested in an interview that the schools should automatically accept the valedictorian and salutatorian of every city middle school, an echo of the Texas program that grants admission to the state’s flagship public university to the top 10 percent of graduates of every high school. Last week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the Texas program from a white student who said she had been rejected because of her race.

Ms. Miles, for her part, said the city needed do a better job disseminating information about the test and the free preparatory programs available.

The city’s Education Department has been offering such a program, with weekend and summer coaching sessions to promising but disadvantaged sixth graders — and, this year only, seventh graders — for more than 20 years. Its original mission was to increase the number of blacks and Latinos, but after a legal challenge in 2007, income became its main eligibility criteria. Since then, however, the program has shrunk — 2,800 students attended in 2008, down from 3,800 two years before — and even among those who participated, black and Latino students were far less likely to take the entrance exam than Asians and whites. This year, Stuyvesant’s Black Alumni Association started offering a more modest version of the tutoring program, benefiting about 100 students. (How they fared will not be known until this week’s admissions letters are sent out.) The middle school visits by the Black Students League and others from Stuyvesant’s diversity clubs have become an annual tradition.

About 10 years ago, Stuyvesant opted out of a program established in the 1970s to give disadvantaged students with exam scores just below the cutoff level a chance to study over the summer and earn a slot at the school.

Mr. Teitel, the principal, declined to comment for this article, but explained his decision last year, at a forum that was held after a video by a group of white students rapping racist and otherwise offensive lyrics made its way to YouTube. He said that a change in Education Department policies meant he could take into the program only students who scored too low for admission to any of the city’s specialized schools, but not those who missed Stuyvesant’s cutoff and got in somewhere else.

That would have most likely meant that students in the target group would have tested 80 or 90 points below the lowest-scoring student Stuyvesant had admitted — a gap, he said, too wide for most of them to overcome.

“They would find it incredibly difficult to succeed,” Mr. Blumm, the parent coordinator, said in an interview.

ABOUT three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Yet Ángel Colón, a portly Puerto Rican who serves as adviser to the schools’ diversity and community-service student groups, said he realized one day that there was a problem with the colorful brochures the black students brought to the middle schools they visited: “There wasn’t a black or brown face in the crowd,” he said.

Mr. Colón, 44, whose formal education ended upon graduation from high school in the Bronx, has turned his office, on the seventh floor at Stuyvesant, into a kind of refuge for the school’s gay, Latino and black students, drawing them partly with a generous supply of cookies and Rice Krispie Treats. The students seek him out for his simple wisdom — “You’ve got to be happy with who you are,” he might tell them — and his nonjudgmental ear.

A lot of black students, he said, have confided, “If I could do it all over again, I don’t know if I would have come here.”

“There’s something very isolating,” Mr. Colón said, “about being one of the very few.”

Rudi has never harbored regrets. There have been disappointing and enraging moments, she said, like when a good friend, the only black senior in Stuyvesant’s esteemed speech-and-debate team, was given a book on rap lyrics as a holiday gift from a white boy she had been mentoring.

Like many of her white and Asian classmates who make lengthy treks from the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens to Stuyvesant’s campus near the site of ground zero, Rudi begins each day before dawn. She sets the alarm on her cellphone for 5:30 a.m., and puts it at the edge of her bed so she has to get up to turn it off. At 6:15, she rouses her father, who drives her to the Wakefield/241st Street stop on the No. 2 train to Manhattan.

One recent morning on the train, she rested her head on an environmental science book as thick and heavy as an encyclopedia volume, squeezed on each side by strangers drinking coffee and nodding off. Blue earphones piped in Bob Marley and U2 tunes, her antidote against the rattle of the hourlong ride.

After exiting at Chambers Street, she quick-stepped west, then across a pedestrian bridge and into the exclusive club, book pressed against her chest like armor as she lost herself in a sea of arriving students. Hers was the only black face in sight.

 

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/education/black-at-stuyvesant-high-one-girls-experience.html?_r=1


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