Alumni Tutoring Effort Strives to Raise Diversity at Elite Public Schools

Courtney Williams's picture
Thursday, October 13, 2011

On a Saturday morning in August, Philip Cleary stood in a white, fluorescent-lit classroom in Washington Heights, facing a dozen sleepy seventh graders he and others are training to pass an entrance exam for the city’s seven specialized high schools.

“The inequality question,” he said. “Who was struggling with that?” He was asking about a problem on a math practice sheet, but it might as easily have been a question directed to the city’s elite public schools.

For more than a decade, the number of black and Hispanic students scoring high enough to be offered a seat at the city’s specialized high schools has been on the decline. 

Last February, just 12 black and 13 Hispanic students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, which had 3,287 students. At Brooklyn Technical High School, which is the largest of the elites and offered seats last school year to more black and Hispanic students than any other specialized high school, the percentages are dropping. During the 2010-11 school year, black students were about 11 percent of the school’s 5,140 students, a drop from 21 percent in 2002.

Admission to those schools hinges on a single exam, given every October to thousands of eighth graders (this year’s test is on Oct. 29 and 30). Now a handful of graduates from the elite schools have started tutoring programs with a singular focus, meant to prepare low-income, minority students to pass it.

In Washington Heights, graduates of Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science run the Science Schools Initiative, a yearlong free tutoring program held for three hours every Saturday morning. To qualify, students must show promise on a diagnostic exam and meet the city’s benchmark for poverty.

“The whole point of this thing is basically to get economically disadvantaged kids into these schools,” said Mr. Cleary, who until recently was the program’s executive director. “I’m not looking to hit a certain number; I’m looking for some equilibrium.”

Of the 53 students in the program who took the exam in 2010, 31 were Hispanic, 12 were Asian, 7 were black and 3 were white. Although they came from schools like Mott Hall II and Junior High School 54 Booker T. Washington, where many students are high-achieving, most of them lived in poorer neighborhoods and commuted long distances to school. Of that group, nearly 45 percent received offers to one of the seven specialized high schools. Others were given scholarships to private schools.

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