A Test of Will
|How does a good student from a bad neighborhood get into one of New York City's top academic schools?|
"I know you want to go to the best high school," Bruce Ravage, director of the Math/Science Institute in New York City, told a 12-year-old student from a Washington Heights middle school last April.
"You’re a phenomenal young lady. Don’t let this opportunity slip through your fingers." Arnoldys Stengel shifted in the chair beside her mother, Mitzy Alcantra, in Ravage’s office at Stuyvesant High School, a five-minute walk from ground zero in lower Manhattan. For nearly an hour, Ravage and Carmen Robbins, a guidance counselor, had been trying to dissuade Arnoldys from dropping out of M/SI, an academic enrichment program that prepares mostly minority students to take the rigorous entrance exam for the city’s three specialized science high schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Technical. Arnoldys stared straight ahead, her long legs stretched out in front of her. She had vigorously avoided eye contact with everyone in the room and hadn’t said one word.
In 1995, M/SI was created by Ramon Cortines, who was then chancellor of New York City’s school system, to increase the presence of African American and Hispanic students at the elite high schools—without, as he made clear, "lowering the bar." At that time, minority students made up a mere 9 percent of the enrollment at Stuyvesant, the starkest example, while they were 70 percent of the city’s public school population. To counter this trend, M/SI offers slots to 6th graders citywide—regardless of whether they attend public school—but focuses onrecruiting from underrepresented neighborhoods. The result is an enrollment in the program that accurately reflects the demographics of the public system.
Getting into one of the specialized high schools is an incredibly competitive rite of passage. Students may otherwise choose to attend their neighborhood public schools or apply to one of the city’s other academic or smaller alternative high schools. But few of those offer adequate preparation for students aspiring to competitive colleges. Every year, more than 21,000 8th graders—including a large number of top private and parochial school students—take the Specialized Science High Schools Admission Test for only 3,000 freshman slots. The top 14 percent of the test- takers get into Brooklyn Tech, making it almost as selective as Harvard University. The cutoff for acceptance to Bronx Science is higher, and for Stuyvesant higher yet: Fewer than 4 percent make it. This big test for little people is meritocracy, pure but not so simple. According to Adam Robinson, who co-founded the Princeton Review and wrote the company’sinitial methodology—which wasincorporated into his book, Cracking the SAT, the only test-prep text ever to make the New York Times bestseller list—the SSHSAT is comparable to the SAT, but about two grade levels easier.
Not surprisingly, more and more middle schoolers in New York City are enrolling in commercial test-prep courses. Stuyvesant’s former principal, Jinx Peruillo, told Robinson that some of her students admitted to taking courses in Taiwan and Hong Kong specifically geared toward the SSHSAT before immigrating to the United States. This galvanized Robinson’s desire to help M/SI because gifted youngsters from the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods simply can’t afford to compete. He bid to put together the program’s test-prep and writing curricula and diagnostictests pro bono and was chosen over Kaplan and the Princeton Review, which he had left previously.
Many education officials, including former school Chancellor Harold Levy, don’t believe in tutoring. Earlier this year, before leaving his post, he moved the 2002 test date up to the weekend of October 26, six weeks earlier than the traditional early- December date, in anattempt to discourage reliance on test-prep courses. But this move put M/SI—public education’s tuition-free attempt to level the playing field—at an even greater disadvantage. Its students had less time to catch up to their more affluent peers at high-performing schools. More than two-thirds of the city’s public school students routinely fail the statewide 8th grade reading test, and almost four-fifths score at lower than proficient level on the math test. Worse, the percentages of failing students are so great in the neighborhoods M/SI targets that researchers refer to them as "educational dead zones." Even the gifted programs, where most of M/SI’s minority students find refuge, don’t begin to prepare youngsters adequately for the SSHSAT.
For many kids, the only way to score well on the entrance exam is to spend time—and lots of it—at M/SI.
M/SI takes its 6th graders through a full year—in the summertime, after school, and on weekends—of rigorous academics to help them catch up with their peers at elite private schools. During their second summer of study, following 7th grade, they make the transition to traditional test prep. As a result, almost 60 percent of M/SI students are accepted into one of the top three science schools—a rate that is five times the citywide average.
The rewards of getting into one of New York City’s flagship schools are great. Stuyvesant graduates 99 percent of its students in four years, and virtually all of them receive scholarships to four-year institutions, including Ivy League and other selective colleges. Stuyvesant typically posts one of the highest numbers of perfect SAT scores in the country, and students at Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech also fare extremely well. Those kids who don’t gain entry to these schools have a shot at three new specialized public high schools that opened in September. There are a total of 360 freshman slots at the facilities, which are located on three City University of New York campuses. (This option is not discussed at M/SI, where the three target schools serve as the main focus.)
Critics of standardized tests have argued, of course, that the exams are biased against minorities, and even some M/SI staffers admit that the sacrifices its students must make are extreme for children in the throes of adolescence. But the SSHSAT, at the moment, is the only means to getting into New York City’s top public schools. The alternatives for teenagers, in terms of quality, range from mediocre to dismal. Only half the city’s students graduate in four years, about a third of its seniors take the SAT, and fewer go on to four-year colleges, where minority students—excluding Asians—drop out at much higher rates than their white peers. Getting into one of the city’s top high schools changes everything.
That’s exactly why Bruce Ravage was fighting so hard last April to get Arnoldys Stengel to stick with the M/SI program. At one point, he sensed she was giving in. Even though she continued to sit silently in his office looking bored, he noticed that she was listening.
"You can’t let this die now. I know that you still want to get into Stuyvesant," he pleaded. "You’re the same person who told me your math class was too easy and asked for a more challenging one. That was one of the most amazingly moving experiences I have ever had in this program."
Tears formed in Arnoldys’ eyes. Finally, Ravage knew he had a shot at keeping her.
Ravage—who retired from the public school system at the end of the summer but still serves as a consultant for M/SI—was hired as its first director because he knew what it would take for the program to succeed. Not only was he a science-staff developer for the city’s schools, but he’d also worked part time for 17 years at Prep for Prep, a nonprofit outfit that grooms gifted minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds for elite private high schools. Traditional test prep, he realized, would not work for these kids; even if a Kaplan-style course got a student through the test, he or she would be overwhelmed by the workload and outmatched by peers at specialized high schools. So at M/SI, Ravage set up a yearlong Foundations Program to bolster math and verbal skills and provide general academic enrichment before introducing test prep. Theapproach proved effective. Virtually all the students who completed the M/SI program in its first two years finished high school on time and are now attending four-year colleges, regardless of how well they did on the SSHSAT.
Bruce Ravage, M/SI's
first director, stands outside Stuyvesant High School, where more
than 90 percent of the graduates receive college scholarship.
M/SI accounts for a third of the minority presence at the
Students are admitted to M/SI based on their scores on the citywide 5th grade reading and math tests and on recommendations from principals. About 1,000 children begin M/SI’s Foundations Program with six weeks of class during the summer after 6th grade. School buses take them, along with 800 7th graders, from their neighborhoods to the main site at Stuyvesant High School, or to one of three satellite sites at Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Townsend Harris High School in Queens. In the fall, M/SI students commute by subway or bus from their regular schools for two and a half hours of class on Wednesdays after school and for a full day on Saturdays.
Some feel that this kind of schedule is brutal for kids who are just 11, 12, and 13 years old. "The requirements that youths have to fulfill today—to get through the school curriculum, to prepare for high school and college entrance examinations, to assemble animpressive extracurricular dossier—are exhausting even to contemplate," says Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University and author of several books on the theory of multiple intelligences, which he originated."And while some youths rise to the occasion, others are defeated by requirements that are simply unreasonable—at least for them, given their abilities, interests, and energies. And yet these latter students may have much to contribute to society.
"Before endorsing an overburdensome schedule," he adds, "responsible adults must seek to answer the following questions: How much work is too much? How many requirements are too many? Where would they draw the line? How can one treat fairly those youngsters who may not be able to keep up, but who still want to have a decent place in society?Unless they—unless we—have satisfying answers to these questions, it is malpractice to impose such requirements on our young persons."
Still, given the current admissions requirements in New York City, Gardner agrees that intense preparation is the only realistic option and says M/SI students are "lucky to be chosen."
Others believe that the SSHSAT, like all standardized tests, simply isn’t fair to minority kids. But the success rate in New York City of Asian and other immigrant test-taking groups whose first language is not English provides a strong counter-argument. "The notion that, since the questions are written by white, middle-class males, the test must favor boys of similar heritage is wrong," Robinson says. "I would argue that familiarity with the cultural context of a math question, for example, misleads students into relying on assumptions, as opposed to someone else who would be forced, correctly, to take the question at face value."
Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, observes that minority students who are capable of doing well in challenging New York City schools but don’t test well are unfairly excluded. This is a legitimate complaint; but alternative assessment tools, such as grades or teacher evaluations, would be far less accurate in big-city environments with so many dysfunctional schools, according to M/SI’sproponents.
Typically, the 6th graders entering the program are more deficient in math than reading. Most have yet to master basic arithmetic, let alone geometry and algebra. It’s generally much easier, however, to improve math skills than verbal ones. The major standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, and NAEP, have shown gains in math over the past decade, while verbal achievement has remained relatively flat. Nuances of language and depth of comprehension are developed over years of reading, writing, and speaking, both in school and at home.
The Foundations English class at M/SI mounts a three- pronged attack. First, students read quality literature that many have never encountered, such as Jane Eyre, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Diary of Anne Frank. The reading list is drawn from what kids are likely to encounter at their target high schools. Second, they learn to write a five-paragraph expository essay. And third, they read and analyze nonfiction. In Ravage’s experience, students encounter very little high-level historical, political, or scientific material in middle school, but there are nonfiction passages on the SSHSAT.
With all the pencil-to-the-grindstone that M/SI demands, Ravage knew early on that he had to provide the students with at least some levity. This past summer, "Saving Fred" was the first lesson from the Science and Life Issues curriculum, developed by the University of California at Berkeley. At I.S. 89, where the M/SI classes were being held temporarily—Stuyvesant’s ventilation system, which became contaminated after the September 11 attacks, was under repair—kids met Fred, a gummy worm. The calm surface of the "lake" on which he floated in his paper-cup boat bore remarkable resemblance to each of the classroom’s tabletops. The 11- and 12-year-olds were paired and presented with a problem to solve: A wave has capsized Fred’s sailboat, leaving him clinging to the upturned bottom of the vessel. Unfortunately, his life preserver is trapped underneath, and eventually, he’ll slip off the boat and drown without it. You must come up with a way to retrieve the life preserver, also made of chewy candy, and put it around Fred without using your fingers. Instead, you’ll be supplied with two paper clips each.
For 40 minutes, the students tested strategies, laughed, and got to know each other. "There are various possible solutions," Norma Peek, their science teacher, instructed, emphasizing that there’s no predestined right way, but a process of discovery to pursue. During this and other exercises, students are exposed to the methodology of observation and experimentation via drawings, models, and, in some cases, wild guesses.
"This way, they learn the scientific method and critical thinking," Peek explained later. "They state the problem, develop the hypothesis as a solution and test it. Then they write up their conclusions as a lab report."
|With all the pencil-to-the-grindstone that M/SI demands, Ravage knew early on that he had to provide the students with at least some levity.|
Like most of M/SI’s instructors, Peek was recruited through a recommendation from a teacher already involved in the program. Ravage visited Peek at Columbus Middle School, where she teaches full time, and was impressed. Positions are formally posted as session jobs, paying certified teachers $33 per hour for after-school work. But the posting process never attracts enough candidates, which allows Ravage to network for those he considers prime candidates.
As Peek made her rounds last summer, she noticed that some of the Freds were being saved from the chilly depths faster than others. Many students discovered that opening up the paper clips helps, but they weren’t allowed to stick the ends into the worm as they maneuvered the cup to retrieve the lifejacket, then tried to open it up and coax it into the right position. Half a dozen Freds survived without lethal puncture wounds and even escaped the hungry mouths of rescuers. Mission accomplished, Peek passed out clean pieces of candy for consumption.
Later in the summer, M/SI students learned how to conduct a controlled medical experiment, with lemonade in two colors substituting for a new drug and its placebo. They also watched a video about pellagra, a B-vitamin deficiency disease, and traced the steps toward the cure with their own observations. Next came the human heart with its relentless pumping, and then a genetics lesson, during which students bred their own "critters."
Ironically, there are no science questions on the SSHSAT. Given the variance in quality of K-8 science instruction in New York City, a content-based test would put students from inferior schools at an even greater disadvantage. But Ravage insists on the Foundations science course, saying it develops reasoning skills that "bear fruit on the verbal and math sections of the test." Equally important, he feels an obligation to address the students’ limited science background. There’d be little point in coaching them into high schools that focus on science if they’re completely unfamiliar with the subject matter. A more direct application to the test comes in the reading comprehension section, where some of the nonfiction passages are scientific in content.
‘But the greatest problem these students face isn’t the ability to excel academically," Ravage said last summer. "It’s the cultural and social obstacles they face."
That’s where the guidance component comes in. Ravage hired one counselor for every 125 students—four times better than the ratio in city schools. Counselors meet with youngsters individually, even if just a hint of a problem arises. In addition, meetings with groups of new students take place weekly to address the usual problems of adolescence and focus on special needs. Kids from disadvantaged areas fight a constant battle with negative peer pressure outside of M/SI. The culture of failure has become so ingrained in many neighborhoods that doing well in school is seen as "acting white."
"I felt stigmatized by people in my neighborhood," recalls Marilyn Nyanteh, who attended M/SI in its first year and is now at Dartmouth College. Nyanteh comes from one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods with many of the lowest-performing public schools. "Friends looked down on me and didn’t invite me to things sometimes," she adds. "They enjoyed their free time and laughed at me for my lack of it. When I would tell someone new I was going to Bronx Science High School, the person would automatically assume that I thought I was better than them."
Guidance counselor Carmen Robbins has a standard answer for students struggling with the stigma. "The program is for your future," she tells them, "and the other kids weren’t chosen, so of course they have other interests and might feel resentful. You have new friends here, and you’re going to get further in life than hanging out in the street."
On Saturdays in the fall, Robbins and her colleagues run workshops for the students’ parents. Most did not go to school in the United States or attend college-prep institutions. Many are not properly equipped to help their children with homework or navigate the arcane complexities of the public education system. Social workers and psychologists are brought in to talk about nutrition, communicating with teenagers, and the most common problems M/SI students face: stress and time management. The biggest question parents raise, in different forms from week to week, is how to keep their kids from dropping out. About 30 percent of M/SI’s participants quit before the program ends.
Usually, several students at each site leave by mid-August the first summer. In the fall, it gets worse. The new 7th graders have to keep up with the workload at their home schools and post good grades in addition to meeting M/SI’s demands. Plus, they want to play sports, take music lessons, and partake of other extracurricular activities. They also have to travel to the M/SI sites on their own. "The biggest complaint I hear from parents is that the transportation is difficult during the school year,"Robbins reveals. "Many drop out if they can’t afford the extra expense or if it’s too difficult.
"If we can get them through the first summer and fall semester, almost all the students make it through the program," she says. "By then, they’ve learned how to handle the pressure, and the end is in sight."
(seated) reacts to a problem she was unable to solve on a
diagnosis test. The kids won't know until January just how well
they did on the actual entrance exam, which was administered in
Arnoldys, however, experienced her crisis in the spring semester of her second year. She had no trouble with the workload; in fact, only a few months prior, she’d gone to Ravage and asked for the most advanced math class. She felt she wasn’t being challenged and began setting her sights on Stuyvesant. But in March, she stopped going to classes.
"She’s quiet and reserved, but a very strong- willed girl with a real presence," Ravage says. "Her mother couldn’t get her to come back."
Ravage called and insisted that they owed him the courtesy of a meeting after the investment M/SI had made in Arnoldys. He knew he needed to talk to her face to face to persuade her to return.
Ravage and Robbins, who grew up in New York City as a member of a Hispanic family, understood Arnoldys’ situation. Many parents in dangerous neighborhoods are protective of their kids—their daughters, especially—to the point of virtual lockdown. After Arnoldys left M/SI in the afternoons, she’d meet her mother at the middle school in the Bronx where she works as a custodian, then head straight home.
"My mom’s concerned about my neighborhood because they kill a lot of people there," Arnoldys explained last summer. Her only outlet was a Sunday modeling class, which she enjoyed. But in the spring, she felt she needed another release. And she was planning to spend the summer with family in the Dominican Republic, rather than caged in a classroom. She saw peers in her neighborhood having fun and her siblings enjoying free time.
But after meeting with Ravage, she said, "I realized how much I learned at M/SI, and I knew I’d have a much better chance at the test." So Arnoldys decided to continue, and Ravage urged her mother "to give her some breathing room."
In the last week of July, Arnoldys sat in math class, along with 11 boys and nine other girls in the middle of their second summer at M/SI. The 12- and 13-year-olds wore shorts and T-shirts, as did their teacher, George Zicopoulos. A blue headband prevented Arnoldys’ long brown hair from obscuring the impassive expression on her face. Her hand worked steadily through the "challenge problems" Zicopoulos had scribbled on the blackboard. The first read: "The length of a rectangle is 10 percent more than the side of a square. The width of a rectangle is 10 percent less than the side of a square. What is the ratio of their areas?"
Zicopoulos, who towered over the adolescents with his salt-and-pepper confusion of hair, walked around checking his brood. "Remember to draw a diagram to help solve the problem," he reminded them.
As with most of the program’s staff, M/SI helps to keep Zicopoulos in the teaching profession. Its classes are filled with students who are eager to learn and have few of the behavioral or motivational problems that often make public school instruction a grueling exercise in classroom management. Zicopoulos has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics from Columbia University and a master’s in economics and finance. Instead of pursuing a career in the private sector, he said, he "wanted to do something lively where I could make a contribution." He was recruited for teaching positions in the suburbs but chose Art and Design, a public high school in Manhattan where he’s taught since 1990. He also coaches basketball, fencing, and handball. As content as he is with his full-time job, he doesn’t find the rudimentary math classes at Art and Design particularly challenging. So he agreed to sign on with M/SI.
"You’re taking numbers and fitting them into what the problem is asking for," Zicopoulos said as he returned to the front of the classroom. "But if you can take a hard number or an easy one, which would you rather pick?"
‘If we can get them through the first summer and fall semester, almost all the students make it through the program.’
The second summer marks a transition for M/SI students, from academics to test prep. On the SSHSAT are 50 verbal and 50 math questions, all in multiple-choice format. But there’s not enough time to work through every question in purely mathematical terms. So the students learn how to quickly eliminate wrong answers, and how and when to translate algebra or geometry questions into simpler arithmetic problems.
A Chinese American youngster named Kevin went to the blackboard and drew the rectangle and the square. He sped through the problem, finishing with the ratio of areasas 100:99—the correct answer. The class attacked a second problem, and Zicopoulos cautioned them to read it very carefully. Misconstruing even one word can throw off the answer. For example, a simple problem like "8 is what percent of 10?" can easily be misread as "What percent of 8 is 10?"
In other classes, where students focus on verbal test prep, they learn how paragraphs and essays are put together. The test has 10 scrambled-paragraph questions. Students practice spotting connecting words and phrases that cue them into reassembling sentences into cohesive paragraphs.
Saulio Tuero, an M/SI English instructor, often assigns newspaper articles, mostly from the New York Times, as preparation for the 30 reading comprehension questions divided among main idea, inferential, and detail-oriented queries. He says the students love articles about dating, animals, and immigrants. They’re also keen on obituaries. Ironically, after investing so much effort instructing the M/SI students in how to read intelligently, teachers then have to coach them to not read. "It’s impossible for these kids to read a 500-word passage and answer six questions in nine minutes on the test," Tuero explains. The students practice timesavers, such as paraphrasing passages quickly or focusing only on topic sentences.
Logic is another component of the reading class. Every summer, he introduces it in the same manner.
"Can I go to the bathroom?" an unsuspecting student asked the teacher in July.
"I don’t know," he replied. "I hope you can."
"But I need to go," the boy insisted.
"I’m sure, but ‘can’ pertains to ability. In logic, you have to think literally," Tuero clarified. "There are 10 logic questions on the test, evenly divided between verbal reasoning and mathematical word games."
"All right," the young man said with a sigh, "may I go to the bathroom?"
"Yes, you may," Tuero responded, enjoying the youngster’s growing consternation. "But you may not come back."
"In logic, you have to get used to the thought that if you don’t spell something out, it doesn’t exist."
"OK, may I go to the washroom, and may I come back?"
"Yes, but you can only use the girl’s bathroom," Tuero shot back.
"No way!" the adolescent exclaimed, then joined his classmates in a major guffaw.
Logical thinking is reinforced in the writing class. Adam Robinson says he put together M/SI’s writing curriculum with the view that "expository writing is the best introduction to developing analytic and systematic thinking skills."
"Every kid wonders why we’re doing writing when it’s not on the test," remarked LisaJane Shuman, a former lawyer who is a global studies teacher at Stuyvesant and who leads the persuasive writing class at M/SI during the summer. "But if you know how a writer puts together a piece, then you’re able to dissect it from the other end."
In the last week of summer classes, Shuman worked her students through finishing the essays they’d been writing and rewriting for and against the TV ratings system. "It’s like teaching them how to write a legal brief," she said. Her students’ manuals contained a series of 10 newspaper articles on the subject of each essay topic. "The kids dissect the articles, pull out the facts, and determine what’s relevant to the point of their essay,"she explained. "They learn what’s good evidence and what’s bad and, so, how to back up their claim."
As labor- intensive as this kind of activity might sound, surveys conducted since the founding of M/SI reveal that graduates enjoyed the writing class best and feel they got the most academic benefit from it.
At press time for this article, Arnoldys and her M/SI classmates were taking the SSHSAT. They’ll have to bite their fingernails until January, when the results will be announced. Back in May, at the end of the spring semester, the youngsters began a series of dry runs. Arnoldys scored 28 out of a possible 50 on the verbal portion of the first diagnostic test and 32 on the math portion. Her combined score jumped to 73 on the second diagnostic in August—high enough to get her into Brooklyn Tech. But she has no more desire to travel to that school by subway than her mother would allow it. She’ll have to score an 85 to make it into Stuyvesant, her first choice, a 75 for Bronx Science. Robinson rates her chances at 60 percent for Stuyvesant, a shoe-in for Bronx. To underscore just how much Arnoldys has improved, he points out that her 5th grade scores forecast only a 1 percent chance of making the lowest cutoff.
Last spring, looking
for a break from the stress, Arnoldys Stengel was ready to drop
out of M/SI. But then she realized she'd have "a much better
chance at the test" if she stayed.
To a significant extent, Arnoldys’ gains can be traced to three predictive factors that Robinson discovered after analyzing five years’ worth of the student surveys. He found that the success of M/SI students is strongly related to the perception of teacher confidence. Ironically, success is inversely related to a student’s level of self-confidence. Kids with the most bravado, according to Robinson, "are the least clued in to how difficult it is to get into the schools and what’s involved in getting there. But a kid who feels that the teacher believes he or she has a shot tends to do well."
He also discovered that nearly all of M/SI’s high-achieving students have been first- or second-generation Americans, with at least one parent born outside the United States. "It’s the immigrant mentality," he says.
Based on these measures, Arnoldys just may have a shot at the top. She’s not brimming with confidence (she bristled at her mother’s prediction that she’ll be admitted to Stuyvesant), and she’s a first-generation American. She also learned just how much M/SI’s staff believes in her when she considered dropping out in April.
On the surface, it appears as though achievement at M/SI strongly correlates with race and ethnic background. Only 42 percent of the program’s minority students made the lowest cutoff last year, compared with 67 percent of their white and Asian peers. Minorities got into the top two schools at half the rate of their classmates. But when adjustments are made for immigrant status and attitude, Robinson found that racial and ethnic considerations evaporate. The critical issue is how much ground inner-city students have to make up. Robinson asserts that with another year of sound academics at M/SI, every student—regardless of predictive factors—would get into one of the three target schools.
"I was shocked at the level of competition when I went to Bronx Science," said Marilyn Nyanteh, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. "The other students had all read more and had much better educations. Many had gone to private schools, and they were used to doing high school-level work." But drawing on the work ethic she developed at M/SI, Nyanteh eventually caught up.
Virtually all of those from the program’s first two years graduated high school on time and went to four-year colleges, regardless of their SSHSAT scores.
Ravage has maintained contact with more than 85 percent of M/SI’s graduates. Virtually all of those from the program’s first two years graduated high school on time and went to four-year colleges, regardless of their SSHSAT scores. For example, Kerlly Bernabe, who was born in Ecuador but grew up in New York City, failed to make the lowest cutoff. Still, she took what she learned at M/SI and applied it to the medical science program at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, traveling every day from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. Bernabe graduated with several AP credits and now attends Wheaton College, a private liberal arts school, on full scholarship. "M/SI had amazing teachers who were willing to get to know their students on a personal basis and encouraged them to perform at their highest potential," Bernabe recalls. "They were a testament to how there are real people out there who believe in us."
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the SSHSAT has become much more competitive in recent years. As the number of students taking the test has increased, so have the cutoff scores. Consequently, these days minorities account for less than 9 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body, a fifth of Bronx Science’s, and a third of Brooklyn Tech’s. But without M/SI, accordingto Ravage, those numbers would be much lower. The program accounts for a third of the minority presence at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and twothirds of that at Brooklyn Tech.
According to Robinson, only a few of M/SI’s disadvantaged students would make the lowest cutoff without the program, and none would have a chance at the other two schools. Their starting points, coming out of deficient middle schools, are simply too low. Few M/SI students even hear about the program or the specialized high schools before being recommended.
This fall, M/SI’s teachers worked on refining test-prep skills and on keeping their students focused. After 16 months of preparation, kids sometimes show signs of mental exhaustion and can ease up at precisely the wrong time.
Arnoldys, however, wanted to set a good example. Her sister, Arnaldys, is applying to M/SI next year. Then there’s their younger brother, Arnold. The oldest sibling explained that her father has a brother named Arnold, and he loves the name. But as frequently as Arnoldys’ mother gets her children’s names confused, she never lacks clarity about their aspirations.
Vol. 14, Issue 3, Pages 20-27
- Learn more about Brooklyn Technical High School, Stuyvesant High School, and the Bronx High School of Science.
- The ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education looks at issues of policy, practice, and equity for focus schools—including New York City's three specialty schools—in "Focus Schools: A Genre to Consider."
- Read past and current newsletters from the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology, an alliance of schools seeking "to create synergies among schools engaged in educational innovation by shaping national policy, fostering collaboration, and developing, testing, implementing and disseminating exemplary programs." See also the contents for the NCSSSMST Journal, published semi-annually.