Facade of Excellence. (Feature)

By Stern, Sol | Education Next, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Facade of Excellence. (Feature)


Stern, Sol, Education Next


Stuyvesant High, one of New York City's elite exam schools, enjoys an ultramodern building, influential alumni, and the city's brightest students, If only it could also escape the corrosive rules of the teachers' contract.

ON A BITTERLY COLD Saturday morning in December 1995, I wished my son Jonathan good luck and then watched him join a long line of students at the entrance to Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, They were all waiting to take the admissions test for New York's three vaunted" exam schools

The admissions process for the three schools is one of the last bastions of pure meritocracy in American education. Each year about 20,000 of the city's 90,000 8th graders report for the three-hour test of math and verbal aptitude. The grand prize, a seat at the world famous Stuyvesant, is offered to those with the top 800 scores. The next 600 are admitted to the Bronx High School of Science. Another 1,000 students get into Brooklyn Technical High School. There are no "legacy" or affirmative-action admissions, Political connections can't get your child in. Special consideration is given only to a small group of students who qualify as "economically disadvantaged" and come within a few points of the cut-off score. These students are given a summer-school course and allowed to take the test again. If they pass on the second try, they're in.

The three exam schools have been in existence for more than 70 years. During the first half of the 20th century, when the New York City public schools composed one of the most successful systems in the nation, they were considered the jewels in the crown. More recently they have been widely regarded as among the last exemplars remaining in a failing system.

The high-school options now available in the city are so limited that thousands of middle-class and working-class parents find themselves left out in the cold when their children fail to make the cutoff for the exam schools. Some then move to the suburbs, while others endure heavy financial sacrifices to send their children to private or parochial schools, Attending a regular New York City public high school is usually the option of last resort.

Of course the situation could always be worse. Indeed, it would be much worse if John Lindsay, New York's iconic liberal mayor during the late 1960s and early 1970s, had gotten his way. Lindsay complained that the entrance exam for the three specialized high schools was "culturally biased" against black and Hispanic children and sought to have the high schools eliminated. He believed that it was a serious civil-rights violation for the city's elite public schools to use race-blind admissions standards, while his own children attended exclusive private schools where money, connections, and "culture" played a major role in the admissions process.

Fortunately, parents of students at Stuyvesant and the other exam schools were able to persuade two obscure state legislators from the Bronx to intervene, They sponsored a bill that later became Article 12 of the New York State Education Law, which reads: "Admissions to the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical High School shall be solely and exclusively by taking a competitive, objective, and scholastic achievement examination, which shall be open to each and every child in the city of New York."

The Best and the Brightest

Two decades later Stuyvesant High School received another unexpected gift: a brand new building. When I attended Stuyvesant back in the 1950s, our turn-of-the-century building on East 15th Street was so overcrowded that we went to school in shifts, By the 1980s, the building was falling apart.

A committee of Stuyvesant parents and alumni then lobbied state and city officials for a new home. Remarkably, the city agreed to spend $150 million for an ultramodern building on a sliver of land next to the Hudson River in lower Manhattan.

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