Is an exam school open to all really open to all?


We have talked a lot of late about New York City’s “special schools.” Let’s talk about privilege.

Let’s get right to the hard part. I worked long in one of these schools. Start with entrance exam day. In the subway, sixth graders were clinging to their parents.

At the school, there was a line all the way around a city block. Inside, we directed kids to their testing rooms. Among them was a little boy in a white shirt and dress slacks.

One couldn’t read his face. His eyes were bright. He was greeted kindly, the only black kid in the room he entered, one of those who did not banter and tease, who sat looking at his hands, whose mistakes that day included the uncool white shirt. And I remember thinking: Did he find his way to test prep? To math practice? To sample essays? Will the experience of taking this exam demoralize him? Will the isolation of sitting here have that effect?

Our school had, unofficially by location and demographics, its feeder schools. Was he from one of those? In fact, of the black and Hispanic kids who were taking this exam, almost none would get into this free, open-to-all public school. This exam school.

We teachers watched this happen again and again. One who would like to think of himself as a good person watched.

We did this every year, and the next Monday, I’d be in a room teaching. In my classes, the kids were no more than a parent or grandparent away from Russia, Korea, the Philippines, Romania, China, Taiwan, Poland or Bangladesh. Half of the kids were bilingual.

This was, in itself, great.

Their writing grew from complex backgrounds. They taught each other. (Admitted students rarely wrote about the test prep that many of them had endured). This diversity was great, except that 70 percent of New York City’s children are rooted elsewhere: Africa, the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

And the boy in the white shirt and dress slacks would not get in. The boy who had been a good kid. Scored well on state exams. Got to this exam. Gets no further. No closer to this good school, where I worked hard with some of the wide world’s children.

I felt guilty about all this, but did not resign, that year of the next. I came back for another year, 32 times. I thought often of how right and wrong can be knotted together.

Strangely, it is a wonderful school. The staff is brilliant and works hard. There was an actual education there for all who wanted it, or could learn to want it.

I worked on — even led — committees to try and change admissions. We failed. The link between excellence and equity is unachieved, and the school remains far, far from being a true New York City school.

What I can do now is write, but not about how to fix any of this. The many problems with how to fix our “elite” schools must come after facing facts about them. And about my school, I have to face a simple moral truth: There is an entangling racism, casual, everyday, and deniable (It’s an exam school! Open to all!).

I can say I did good work in that school. I cannot claim to have been — then or afterward — a good person.

The author recently retired from Hunter College High School on Manhattan’s East 94th Street, where he taught for 33 years.

Kip Zegers,