Close Stuyvesant High School

Why super-elite public magnet schools aren’t necessary anymore.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty

My alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, has been a lightning rod in New York City politics for as long as I can remember. Whenever critics have griped about the way Stuyvesant does business, my inclination has long been to say, essentially, “Screw you.” Going to Stuyvesant is one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I met two of my lifelong best friends there, and being surrounded by thousands of the city’s scrappiest strivers, most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants from New York’s outer boroughs, taught me more than I ever learned from any teacher. The same goes for most of the alums with whom I’ve kept in touch over the years.

Yet recently, as Mayor Bill de Blasio, state lawmakers in Albany, and the United Federation of Teachers have called for scrapping Stuyvesant’s current admissions formula, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Stuyvesant should close its doors. The same goes for elite public high schools like it across the country.

Stuyvesant is one of New York City’s “specialized high schools.” To gain admission, you must first take an entrance exam. Every year, thousands of kids take the test—last year it was 27,817—to try their luck at getting into one of the city’s eight specialized high schools. What separates Stuyvesant from the rest of the specialized high schools is simply that it has the highest cutoff. It admits the highest-scoring 950 or so students, not all of whom attend. This wouldn’t be such a problem for de Blasio and his allies if it weren’t for one awkward and uncomfortable fact, which is that Stuyvesant’s admissions formula has not yielded a student body that looks like New York—not even close. Of the 952 admissions offers Stuyvesant made in 2014, 71 percent went to students of Asian origin, while only 2.9 percent went to black and Latino students, despite the fact that 70 percent of the eighth-graders currently enrolled in New York City schools are black and Latino. The shortage of black and Latino students is not new. They have been relatively rare ever since the school was established in 1904. As the city’s demographics have changed, the absence of black and Latino students has grown all the more politically problematic.

You might wonder how New York City, the citadel of urban liberalism, has allowed this racial imbalance to persist for so long. The reason is that Stuyvesant’s straightforward, exam-based admissions process is enshrined in a state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971. There have been efforts to overhaul the law, to have it take into account grades and attendance and other measures that would all but guarantee that slackers like my eighth-grade self would never set foot in Stuyvesant again, but they’ve never had quite the momentum they do now. What I find irritating about the debate over Stuyvesant is the premise that if only the school admitted more black and Latino students, all would be well. This reflects a profound misunderstanding of how Stuyvesant works.

Recently, Capital New York surveyed a panel of local education experts on how they’d go about changing Stuyvesant’s admissions formula, and most of them recommended admitting the top performers on the test at public middle schools across the city, ensuring that each school sends kids to Stuyvesant. Given the fact that many of New York’s middle schools are highly segregated, this would all but guarantee that more black and Latino students would be admitted to Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools. It would also mean, however, that many capable students who’d be admitted under the current formula would be denied admission and that the concentration of talent that is Stuyvesant’s great strength would be greatly undermined.

One expert, Robert Tobias, a professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School, recommended making the admissions process more like what you’d find at an elite college, complete with teacher recommendations and a portfolio of the student’s work, a proposal that would likely prove an extraordinarily expensive administrative nightmare.

The most penetrating contribution came from Pedro Noguera, also a professor at the Steinhardt School, who raised an obvious but largely neglected point, namely that Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools aren’t actually that great: “I would not tell a top African-American student to go to one of those schools.” Rather, Noguera explained, he’d encourage such a student to attend a school that offered a more supportive environment and a higher quality of education. He told Capital that the specialized high schools offer “a total sink-or-swim environment,” which he would not hold up as a model.

Noguera is exactly right. The politicians and the education experts who are so fixated on the racial balance at Stuyvesant neglect the fact that Stuyvesant is not built to support and nurture students who need care and attention to excel academically and socially. It is a school that allows ambitious students who know how to navigate their way around a maddening, complex bureaucracy to connect with other students with the same skill sets. Being in a fiercely competitive environment spurs a small number of sleep-deprived students to stretch themselves to the limit, to compete for admission to elite universities. The truth is that while Stuyvesant certainly does send many hyperaggressive students to the Stanfords and MITs and Princetons, students who find themselves in the bottom half of the class often languish without the support they’d get at other schools.

Giving some number of black and Latino students a boost in the admissions process won’t suddenly vault them into the top of the class or erase their need for a supportive environment. It is all too easy to imagine that the locus of segregation would simply shift. Stuyvesant High School as a whole might look more like New York City. But would the top quarter of the class look like it, or would it still be dominated by the kind of students who don’t need a supportive environment to max out their GPAs? Like Noguera, I strongly suspect that the kind of very good black and Latino students who might be admitted to Stuyvesant if grades and attendance were taken into account would be better off elsewhere—and I think the same is probably true of many Asian and white students as well, if not most.

Critics of Stuyvesant’s demographic mix need to think hard about the goals of integration. Traditionally, desegregation efforts have been designed to get students from deprived backgrounds to rub shoulders with students from more affluent and stable families, in the hopes of fostering meaningful interracial friendships and spreading the norms that contribute to success later in life. In other words, integration is about helping students build social and cultural capital. Notice, however, that Stuyvesant has grown less and less white over the years. It’s certainly not true that all white New Yorkers have more social and cultural capital than first- and second-generation Asian-Americans. As a general rule, however, native-born whites, and in particular rich native-born whites, tend to be more established in American society than recent arrivals from China’s Fujian province or Bangladesh. So I find it striking that only 17 percent of admissions offers went to self-identified white students this year. Even if we add in the additional 8.3 percent of students who chose not to disclose their ethnic identities, many of whom, I’m guessing, were either white or of mixed ancestry, the total is a mere 25.3 percent.

I have a theory about declining white representation at Stuyvesant. I seriously doubt that it’s because New York City is no longer home to white eighth-graders from affluent families who have expansive vocabularies and solid critical thinking skills and who are more than capable of scoring well on the entrance exam. I’ve met more than my share of such young people. My gut tells me that Stuyvesant has grown steadily less attractive to white families with the kind of social and cultural capital that helps people get ahead in America. These families are seeking out other options, and so have savvy families of all ethnic backgrounds. Over the past three decades, New York’s wealth boom has contributed to soaring endowments at the city’s elite independent schools, virtually all of which are keen to attract talented black and Latino students and which obviously cater to academically gifted white students as well.

More consequential still has been the rise of smaller public high schools, which offer well-defined curriculums that are a better fit for the large majority of students, gifted or otherwise, who need a bit of hand-holding. If you were a college-educated native-born parent living in New York who knows your way around the local high schools, is it obvious that you’d want your child to go to Stuyvesant instead of an excellent school with a mellow, hippie-ish vibe, or one that offers intensive instruction in Mandarin? Would it be obvious if it entailed a grueling commute, like the hour-and-a-half one-way commutes that were routine for friends of mine traveling from the far reaches of Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx? It might have been obvious from the 1970s to the 1990s, when middle-class flight devastated the city’s local high schools, and when getting your nerdy kid into a specialized high school was the only way to ensure that she wouldn’t get beaten up every day at lunch. Fortunately, New York City has come a long way since then.   

There is another reason why in-the-know parents appear to be turning away from Stuyvesant. These days, it doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of keeping its students on the ethical straight-and-narrow. In 2012, dozens of Stuyvesant students were caught cheating on a statewide Regents exam, the results of which were utterly inconsequential for the students involved. These were bright kids with bright futures, and they thought nothing of texting the questions on the (totally meaningless) Regents exam to their fellow students. The reporting that followed the scandal, from Vivian Yee of the New York Times and others, made it clear that this particular cheating incident was part of a larger pattern. The students involved in the scandal had grown so accustomed to cheating that it was second nature. And why wouldn’t it be? When you get enough bright young people together and you tell them that academic achievement is everything but that you’re going to load them with enough homework to last several lifetimes, it’s inevitable that corners will be cut.

Some will suggest that we simply transform Stuyvesant to address these concerns. Let’s give it the same admissions process as Amherst College! Let’s emphasize character education! Let’s see to it that black and Latino representation never falls below 10 percent! But why bother? Such a radical overhaul wouldn’t address the fundamental problem, which is the premise that New York City should have an elite high school—a “crown jewel” of the public school system—at all. As long as some people out there insist that Stuyvesant is the city’s best school, and that its students are the best of the best, the fact that so few of its students are black and Latino is obviously going to offend people. How could it not?

Instead of reinventing Stuyvesant from the ground up, we should instead recognize that it never made sense for one warehouse of a school to hoover up such a big chunk of the city’s whiz kids. Better to spread gifted and talented kids across a wide range of schools offering different instructional models, each of which will do a better job of meeting their students’ needs than a one-size-fits-all school like Stuyvesant, and none of which, hopefully, will pride itself on its “eliteness.”