When I saw that Stuyvesant High School, one of the most elite schools in the country, had only admitted seven African American students out of 895, I was surprised and disappointed.
Black students make up around a quarter of public school students in New York City, and although I know that black and Hispanic representation in the specialized high schools is skewed, the imbalance is staggering. The statistics from the other schools were not much better, reflecting the oft-overlooked fact that schools across America are more segregated now than they were decades ago, before the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
If these high-performing schools are made up primarily of white and Asian students, what do other schools in New York on the other end of the spectrum look like?
Three days a week, I work part-time as a math teacher at an underperforming middle school in the Bronx, where 99 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 93 percent of the student body is black and Hispanic.
It is easy to read these statistics and classify these students as a monolith of poor performance and struggle, and it is true that most of the students face difficulties both in school and outside in their homes and communities. But they are bright, curious, passionate and perceptive about the realities they face in their day-to-day lives.
When I first began teaching, the students expressed disdain for their new classes with me, peppering me with questions and protests. They complained of being in this class because they are “stupid,” that even if they tried their hardest, they would never fully comprehend the material at hand. They told me about the school culture and climate, one they saw as having a lack of trust and mutual respect between students and teachers, and slowly I have begun to see things from their perspective.
In the school building, all of the classroom doors are locked, presumably to prevent students from stealing calculators or other teaching materials. There is no hall break, and students have exactly one minute to get from one class to another, for fear of them loitering in the halls and getting into trouble.
There are timed water breaks, bathroom passes, and more — demonstrating that students are not trusted to maneuver through their school days on their own. This leads to an environment that far from motivating students to cooperate and focus on the lesson at hand, causes them to feel unvalued, which later can be seen when they lash out and act up in ways that come off as disrespectful.
The discordant relationships that the kids have with other teachers and staff is not the only reason they act in ways not conducive to positive learning. When I ask the kids about their home lives, it is slowly revealed that school is not the only place where they are not given the proper tools to thrive. One of my students told me that the reason why she was acting up was because her home had recently burned down and she was worried that her and her family would soon end up homeless.
Another told me that she and many more of her classmates suffer from anxiety and depression as a result of unfavorable conditions at home, but they have no place to talk about these issues, seeing as the school can’t provide adequate social support for the students.
My difficult day ends when I leave school and go back to a home that I consider safe, stable and supportive — a luxury and privilege many of my students are unable to experience.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to focus on only negative aspects of my school’s culture. Many times I have seen parents of students meeting with teachers, seeking not to punish but to figure out what is going on and determine a path forward that is beneficial and reasonable for all parties involved.
There are advisory periods, theoretically giving students time with teachers who represent more of mentors and supporters than academic disciplinarians. There are field trips and school performances, student government and more, representing sincere efforts by the school administration to improve the experiences of students, not simply for the sake of them getting higher grades on the state tests.
And yet, this is not enough. When one examines school population and performance, there is a tendency for non-white students who come from lower-income homes to fill up schools that tend to be less successful based on a large variety of academic and social indicators.
This is no accident. Rather, it is a sustained pattern of racism and segregation that has gone unaddressed in this country, leading to more money and resources directed toward wealthier, whiter districts, and being diverted away from neighborhoods were there are higher numbers of black and Hispanic families.
When discussing the complex problems regarding public school and education in New York City and beyond, it is easy to point to the SHSAT high school test as a major problem, when in reality it is a symptom of institutional problems that local and state governments should be working hard to address and dismantle, for the betterment of the future of all the young people in the communities we are a part of.