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’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.