My SHSAT scores didn’t show what I could achieve at Brooklyn Tech

A summer program for high-achieving, low-income students gave me a second chance.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The snow was piling up outside the school window, almost as fast as the anxiety building up in my stomach. After what seemed like hours of waiting, I was called down to my guidance counselor’s office to receive my results on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or the SHSAT.

Brooklyn Technical High School, one of New York City’s nine specialized high schools, was my dream school. From the wide range of majors and extracurricular activities, enabling students to explore their interests, to the large Asian school community, I thought it was my best shot at climbing the socioeconomic ladder for my family. Not only have many alumni gone on to prestigious universities, but the school also offers lots of college-level courses.

However, first I had to pass the SHSAT. I could hope all I wanted, but if I did not have the score to get in, the dream would stay a dream.

My parents are immigrants, and like other immigrant parents, mine upended their lives so that I could get a top-notch education here. No one in my family has ever even attended high school.

Richard Zhao (Courtesy photo)

Having emigrated from China with little money or knowledge of English, my parents were forced to settle for below-minimum-wage jobs to keep food on the table. They worked as food vendors, standing for 14 hours in unpredictable weather to support us. They invested whatever spare time and money they had in SHSAT prep courses to ensure that I would get into Brooklyn Tech. That was a lot to put on a 13-year-old. I felt as if the entire future of the family depended on this one moment.

As I was waiting outside the art room for my results, I started running out of hope. Despite five years of courses and studying, the SHSAT was one of the hardest exams I had ever taken, and I thought my score was a dud.

Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and paper-mache-sculpted balloons made the room radiate with a sense of light and peace — something I feared I would not feel after opening my admission letter in front of both my mother and guidance counselor.

When they finally called me in, and I sat down across from my guidance counselor, I could not stop my hands from trembling. In an attempt to calm my nerves, my mother, who was sitting next to me, placed her hands on mine. “Do not worry. Everything will be alright,” she said.

I could see right through her. She was anxious, too. I saw the letter on the desk in front of me.          

Specialized High School: None.

Score: 477

With those few words, my dreams were crushed. Brooklyn Tech was my top and only choice. The cutoff score was 507. My jaw was agape, and I glanced over to my mother. “So…not specialized?” she whispered to me, trying her hardest to keep her disappointment hidden. My mother locked her lips and let out a deep sigh, but after seeing me on the verge of tears, she quickly placed her hands on my shoulders and smiled.

Normally, I would have been relieved that my mom did not yell at me, but now, I felt like the greatest failure. I feared that I had just botched my one ticket to success. Worse, I worried I would never be able to talk to my mother again because I had disappointed her.

I was expected to set the standard for my two younger siblings and make my parents’ backbreaking work to pay for the prep courses worthwhile. Instead, I felt I had not only let my parents down, I had let myself down.

Just as bad was the thought of showing up the next day, head down, dreams shattered, and having to tell my friends I wasn’t as smart as they thought I was — as I thought I was. It seemed like hell.

So I lied to my friends about my score and said I wasn’t sure where I’d go yet. Then I would change the conversation.

But I couldn’t escape it. People were posting their high school acceptances all over their Instagram stories. As soon as I clicked my messages app on my phone, dozens of people were asking me: “What school did you get into?” Every time I got a notification, I felt something boil up in me. Was it anger? Shame? Or was it jealousy? Not knowing what to say, I put my phone on “do not disturb.”

A few days later, just as I was trying to figure out what my next steps were, my social studies teacher pulled me aside and said, “Your guidance counselor wants to see you.” Why? Am I in trouble? I thought.

In her office, she gestured for me to sit down. She was holding a letter. “Richard, this letter is for you, and it came from the Department of Education,” she said. “You can open it here if you want.”

I opened it.

 “Welcome to Brooklyn Technical High School Discovery Program.”

I immediately got out of my chair and threw the letter on the floor. I picked it up and read it again. It couldn’t be. Was this my second chance? I was ecstatic. 

When I got home, I showed the letter to my parents, who couldn’t believe I had another opportunity. They didn’t know what the program entailed, only that I might now fulfill their educational dreams for me.

The Discovery Program offers low-income, high-achieving students who have scored below the admissions cutoff a second chance at the school. Discovery participants must attend a summer course at the school, and if they do well there, they are admitted to their respective high school.

I thought my peers would label me as unqualified and undeserving of a spot in the school. I worried about being perceived as someone who needed assistance to get in. But those thoughts didn’t stop me from taking my spot in the program.

Fortunately, I did well enough to be accepted to Brooklyn Tech. To my surprise, no one at my new school asked, “Did you go through Discovery?” When I eventually slipped one day and told my friends I had gone through the program, they didn’t care. I had done all that worrying for nothing. 

Although I am about to enter my senior year and doing well at Brooklyn Tech, I don’t think my eligibility for getting into any school should be based on one test. In fact, I excel in community leadership and have started my own organization to raise awareness about racism and hate crimes. I get good grades and am an excellent writer, which is how I got accepted to write for YouthComm Magazine. As New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said during a recent interview with students: “I think there are students who are so gifted and talented in so many different ways.” I think those gifts should be the entrance criteria for specialized high schools. 

A version of this essay was originally published in YouthComm Magazine.

Richard Zhao is a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School in the Law & Society major. He identifies as a Chinese-American who is passionate about activism and founded an organization called “AZNActivists” hoping to empower Asian youth around the world and educate the public about Asian issues. He enjoys hiking and traveling to new places.