First Person

‘So there I was, figuring it out myself’: A Brooklyn teen on why the city’s specialized high school prep wasn’t enough

PHOTO: Teens Take Charge
The author at an event organized by Teens Take charge.

Stuyvesant High School once loomed large for high school senior Hiba Hanoune.

The school is one of New York City’s specialized high schools, long considered crown jewels of the city’s education system. The schools also look very different than the city, with just 11 percent of admissions offers for next year’s freshman class going to black and Hispanic students.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has taken some steps diversify those student bodies, including expanding programs that provide students with test prep. The numbers haven’t budged, though.

In front of a standing-room crowd at the Brooklyn Public Library, Hanoune recently shared her less-than-ideal experience with the city’s DREAM program, which is supposed to help students prepare for the specialized high school exam — and explained how she eventually created a successful high school experience without Stuyvesant. The event was organized by Teens Take Charge, a group of students who advocate for changes in the school system.

In the time since Hanoune took the specialized high school admissions test, the city has changed the exam in an attempt to align it more closely with what eighth-grade students are expected to learn in class. The scrambled paragraphs that Hanoune encountered, for example, are gone. But advocates question whether the test has really changed in meaningful ways.

Here’s an expanded version of what Hanoune had to say.

It was September of 2014. There I was, the salutatorian of my graduating eighth-grade class, preparing myself for admission to my dream school, Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant was that one school that was going to help support me and set a springboard for my future endeavors.

My family wasn’t well off financially. Often times, we struggled and there was constant worry over whether we had food in the fridge or we had school supplies. I wasn’t expecting to enroll in a Kaplan or a Princeton Review course like my fellow affluent classmates. Nevertheless, I persisted. I sought out a free program that’s funded by the Department of Education called DREAM. Upon hearing the name of the program, I knew this was my chance to really meet my goal. I was one step closer to Stuyvesant.

Every Saturday morning, I would take a two-hour train ride to the site where the program was held. My excitement and eagerness faded upon finding out that my course was set in a dilapidated building, and my so-called instructor didn’t seem like she was there for the purpose of instructing but rather for the paycheck. We were given a workbook and told to start on page 2. I distinctly remember inquiring to my instructor about a problem in the workbook, and as a response, my book was thrown back and I was told to figure it out myself.

So there I was, figuring it out myself. I remember just copying off of my classmates because I didn’t want to hand in a blank workbook. We would have about 30 minutes of instruction; it was very minimal. The instructor just basically reiterated everything that was in the textbook.

After that first summer in DREAM, I was transferred to another site, where the instructors were better. But I quickly found that I couldn’t keep up with my classmates. The instructor just completely ignored the fact that some people were lagging. English was my stronghold so I did pretty well, but when it came time for math instruction I felt like she was just speeding through.

When we took practice tests, I would get discouraged by my low scores. My DREAM classmates went to more prestigious middle schools — screened middle schools that select their students based on their grades and test scores. When I tried to apply to a screened middle school, my immigrant parents discouraged me. They just weren’t very aware of the middle school process and worried about me leaving our neighborhood.

October rolls in. I show up to the test with two sharpened No. 2 pencils and little-to-no knowledge or practice for the test. I remember the morning of the test, my dad drove me to Dunkin’ Donuts and told me, ‘You got this.’ I sat down, and when I got to the first section, there was a scrambled paragraph. I thought, ‘Oh no.’ That feeling didn’t budge as I noticed that other kids were speeding through their questions.

November, December, January, February, March. Results day.

I opened my letter to find out my score amounted to nothing in comparison to my classmates. As classmates shouted that they’d been accepted to Staten Island Tech, or Bronx Science, my letter revealed that I was matched to my zoned high school. There I was, the salutatorian, matched to the zoned program.

My dad had all the confidence that I would get accepted to a specialized high school, so I only applied to my neighborhood high school. I think that reflected my parents’ lack of knowledge around the issue.

Although I didn’t get accepted to a specialized high school, I constantly told myself, ‘You can make it anywhere. You just have to make use of what’s available.’ I joined activities that interested me and stimulated critical thinking including mock trial, Model United Nations, and moot court — a law competition.

In my high school, there is a major, major disparity. There is an honors academy, which I attend, and a zoned program. Honors students have first priority to take honors classes and also have access to Advanced Placement classes. In the honors program, I feel challenged and stimulated. It has been very rewarding, but I don’t think it’s fair that some of my peers don’t have access to those classes just because some test scores or grades from their middle school years mean they don’t qualify.

This fall, I will be heading to Columbia University to study human rights. Attending Columbia was just a dream that I didn’t think was attainable until I got my acceptance letter.

The specialized high school exam tests material that would not be known to your average eighth-grader — unless a prep course was taken. Yes, the specialized high school test is race-blind. Yes, the specialized high school test is bias-blind. But we cannot forget that only 10 percent of students who make up these schools are black or Latino. The dichotomy speaks for itself. Something must be wrong.

This barricades financially disadvantaged students’ opportunities to attend an elite high school. Claiming that the test is not biased sounds like an absolutely valid justification for keeping it in place. But the test actually subjugates thousands of qualified students simply because of their lack of resources and for reasons beyond their control. One test is not and should not be the determining factor of one’s success.

Hiba Hanoune is a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. 

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.