First Person

A Graduate’s Case Against Specialized High Schools

When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place.

At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence.

In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal?

I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.

The SSHSAT is an exam created to systematically sift out the brilliant test takers of New York City. When you remove the most aggressively studious types from all the schools of New York and force them in a school together, you create an environment that is not conducive to learning, but is rather the academic equivalent of a pressure cooker. Here, competition is palpable. I’ve seen students spiral into deep depression over a couple meager points shaved off a test score. I’ve seen tiny students hauling multiple textbooks in their backpacks at once, in a cartoonish display of upper body strength. I’ve seen students skip lunch and dart to study hall to snatch up library textbooks before the next kid, in attempt to cut into that night’s staggering homework load before arriving home after sundown.

The scariest part of all this, is that it only seems outrageous to me in retrospect. When you’re in the Stuy bubble, all of these neuroses seem perfectly normal. Stress is normal. Fatigue is normal. Depression is normal.

My parents wanted me to get into Stuy for the same reason many New York parents do: to get a free ride to four years of superb academics (and to brag, naturally, but that’s beside the point). For many, it’s a way to avoid subpar educational experiences at other schools. But they encounter subpar, and sometimes even damaging, conditions of another type at the city’s beacon of excellence.

Academic reforms have recently been proposed to try and mitigate Stuy’s cutthroat competition and workload: for instance, limiting the amount of homework assigned and asking that all families sign a contract promising academic integrity. In reality, however, these reforms wouldn’t do much more than encourage students to find other outlets to excel (and whether an anti-cheating contract would be effective seems like wishful thinking to me). This is a school that runs on the steam of its vigorous meritocracy, so to try and curb competition would be largely futile. It could be that changing the admissions process, as a civil rights group last week called on the city to do, would effect some culture change. But I believe that fundamental academic reform is something that needs to start in the home.

This is no longer the age where a seat at a top-tier university will guarantee you success and a job. Bachelor’s degrees have been rendered compulsory, and they are useless if not coupled with individual passion. Young people have to be encouraged from a young age to find and hone in on their strengths. I would stress to youngsters that highly selective schools and universities (i.e. those illustrious Ivies and specialized science high schools) are not the be-all-end-all of an academic career. An acceptance letter is not a ticket to success, and it is vital that one’s strengths and interests are not overshadowed by one’s attractive GPA.

Here is the fundamental problem with our standing academic system: Standardization and emphasis on quantifiable achievement have turned schools into assembly lines, throwing individual capabilities to the wind. This is the age of hyper-specialization, and there needs to be a fresh initiative to get students to narrow down their academic concentrations and develop their strengths, perhaps by means of specific academic tracks or concentrations. Likewise, individually tailored mentality needs to be fostered in the home. Parents, I urge you to pay attention to your children’s natural abilities and cultivate them by means of extra curricular activities. Academic advisors should do the same. When I was a sophomore at Stuy, I was perpetually bogged down by pressure to excel at subjects utterly irrelevant to me. By the time college rolled around, I was so forlorn and overwhelmed by options that it took me years to discover strengths I had all along — and that if someone had taken time to notice, I would have capitalized on sooner.

Ask anyone that’s attended Stuy and they will tell you the same thing — that sure, we had some great teachers and neat facilities, but that’s not what made the school. The students were the school’s shining glory, and let’s be real — they would excel anywhere if given the opportunity. They didn’t need to enter the Stuy machine to get into “good” colleges. In fact, Stuy often works against students’ favor in the application pool, because so many of its students apply to the same schools and compete against each other. No one should be subjected to that harrowing cult of achievement.

The aphorism is true — a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. It is a shame for our bright young minds to be wasting valuable energy on fruitless efforts. Merit for merit’s sake will only harbor frustration when the fruit of one’s labor does not ultimately translate into success. Competition is only healthy when one strives to achieve something of value — and more often than not, it is not something quantifiable with a test score.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.