the one that got away

Prestigious and public, the Hunter College schools charge hefty fees and admit few poor students

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Your first shot at getting in comes when you’re four years old.

You have to live in Manhattan, speak English, and have $350 for an IQ test. If you’re invited back, a team of consultants will observe you in a classroom setting and make the final call.

You get a second chance several years later, assuming you’ve aced the state tests in fifth grade and know to apply for a high school seat in sixth grade. Then, your score on the school’s admissions test will decide your fate.

That’s how admissions works at Hunter College Campus schools, which serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Though the schools are operated by the city’s public university system, not its education department, they are public schools. And for about 1,600 students at a time, they provide what is considered one of the best public educations in New York City.

The schools look very little like the city its students live in, though, a fact that has been true for many years. And as New York City engages in a lively debate about the lack of diversity at eight elite city high schools — with Mayor Bill de Blasio calling the lack of black and Hispanic students there “a monumental injustice” — Hunter’s disparities in some cases are far starker.

At the specialized high schools, 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students last year, and nearly half of the students attending are poor. But just 7 percent of Hunter high school students are black and Hispanic, and only 9 percent come from low-income families. At Hunter’s elementary school, less than 3 percent of students come from low-income families.

Still, Hunter has flown under the radar. The schools have avoided the spotlight for a constellation of reasons, including their unique governance structure and the fact that their admissions numbers are not released annually by the city, something that has drawn special attention to demographics at the specialized schools.

“There’s no question that this is another crown jewel when it comes to public high school in New York City,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. As for Hunter and CUNY, he said, “I think it’s a shame that they have not chimed in.”

Debra Wexler, a spokesperson for Hunter College, said the school has engaged in extensive outreach to find talented students from across the city. Hunter officials also note that multiracial students make up 18 percent of the high school, and that poverty is tough to track, since some families fail to turn in their free and reduced-priced lunch forms, the school’s standard means for collecting information about family income.

“The Hunter College Campus Schools are designed to serve intellectually gifted students,” Wexler said. “Those students exist in every community, and it’s our job to find them, so we have spent the past several years investing heavily in outreach and engagement strategies to encourage bright students from all backgrounds to apply.”

Officials at Hunter said their outreach is working and said they expect a more diverse kindergarten class next year.

But as officials and parents continue to examine equity, diversity, and segregation in the nation’s largest school district, observers wonder if Hunter has an obligation to more forcefully address the fairness of its admissions policies.

“Hunter is another one of these private schools masquerading as a public school,” said Lazar Treschan, a Hunter graduate who has studied New York City high school admissions and works at the Community Service Society. While it’s good to see that the school moving in the right direction, he said, “It has no business being a public school in New York City with those kind of disparities.”

***

The Hunter College Campus Schools have been prestigious bastions of public education for gifted New York City students since the mid-1950s. The schools boast a string of notable alumni, including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star running for governor of New York. The high school also routinely sends about a quarter of its graduating class to Ivy League schools, MIT, or Stanford.

The schools also have a long history of grappling with a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, although the disparities are worse today than they have been in the past. In 1995, the incoming class of seventh graders was about 18 percent black and Hispanic, according to the New York Times. In 2017, 9 percent of seventh graders were black or Hispanic.

Fred McIntosh, the former director of admissions at Prep for Prep, which helps students of color get into private schools, took the Hunter entrance exam in the early 1980s. He said he didn’t know anyone who prepared seriously for the test, and thinks the lack of test prep and a program that admitted some poor students who just missed the cutoff score helped make his class more diverse than today’s student body.

(Hunter officials said they don’t know of such a program, which is mentioned in a report created by a school committee in the early 2000s, and they don’t have information about why it might have been phased out.)

“It was much more racially and ethnically diverse, but it was also very socioeconomically diverse,” said McIntosh, who is black. “That’s one of the things that I learned going to Hunter. I thought all of the kids were wealthy and that was not true.”

But at least as far back at 1997, faculty members have been devising ways to boost diversity at the school. In a report from that year, a committee on cultural diversity at Hunter College High School recommended a full review of the school’s admissions policies, investigating whether the school could eliminate the admissions testing fee, and developing an anti-discrimination statement.

Several years later, Glenn Kissack, then a math teacher at the school, participated in another review of admissions. After months of studying the small number of “feeder schools” that often produce Hunter students and looking into the expensive test prep available for the exam, the committee suggested potentially reserving more seats for poor students and selecting students based on more than just a single test score.

The committee submitted the report, and months went by with no word from the Hunter administration, Kissack said.

“We could have done something else with our time,” Kissack said. “It gathered dust and didn’t matter.”

Hunter officials would not specifically address most of the recommendations in the reports, but said that the school has been engaged in many discussions over the years about improving diversity. Hunter has implemented many recommendations over the years, they said, including creating a Dean of Diversity position in 2002 and raising private funds for student outreach efforts.

The conflict came to a head in 2010 when the high school faculty selected Justin Hudson, one of the school’s few black students, to address his class at graduation. Hudson tackled the school’s demographics head-on in his speech.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, according to an article in the New York Times, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Kevin Park was a junior at Hunter College high school in 2010, when he joined in the standing ovation for Hudson’s speech. He remembers that there were more students named “Kevin” in his grade than there were black students, and felt Hunter lacked faculty and classes that represented Asian students like himself.

After the speech, Park and some classmates created a skit about what it was like to be a black student at Hunter. It depicted assuming college acceptances came easier to black students and how being the only black student in a class can deter speaking up in class, he said.

“That sparked a discussion for a while,” Park said, “but it didn’t necessarily translate into concrete steps or policies.”

Even some of Hunter’s notable alumni have called out the school for its lack of diversity. MSNBC host Chris Hayes uses Hunter as an example of an admissions process that is rigged for the wealthy. Lin-Manuel Miranda recently tweeted a picture at his Hunter College High School reunion with a friend, and said the two of them were two of just five Latino kids in their elementary school grade.

Hunter College officials say that they are confident in their existing process, but are looking for ways to expand the pool of students who apply. At the elementary school level, they have hosted open houses and attended private or selective school admissions fairs, focusing on areas with a concentration of underrepresented students like Harlem or Washington Heights. As a result, Hunter’s kindergarten class is projected to be 22 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 18 percent multiracial in the next school year, they said.

For the high school, they have worked to better notify students who qualify to take the Hunter entrance exam, including by mailing information to parents through the city’s education department. They have also done outreach at the Success Academy charter network, and have seen applications double from those schools.

“Those efforts are bearing fruit,” Wexler said.

The high school has also seen a slow uptick in the number of black and Hispanic students attending over the last decade, though the numbers remain relatively tiny — 7 percent of students in 2017-18.

About two-thirds of the city’s public-school students are black or Hispanic.

Officials at Hunter said they would like to do more outreach but that they are stymied by the fact that the education department will not share contact information for eligible middle schoolers. The city says it is constrained by federal privacy law, but sends an invitation to take the test to all eligible students.

Officials at the mayor’s office did not specifically address Hunter’s admissions policies, but said the mayor is looking to expand diversity initiatives beyond specialized high schools. They also said he believes schools should reflect the diversity of the city.

***

One of the reasons Hunter stands apart — even from other elite New York City schools that select students based on ability — is that its sorting process can essentially guarantee a four-year-old a spot at one of the city’s most sought-after high schools.

That was the experience of Andy McCord’s daughter, who took and passed Hunter’s elementary school tests more than a decade ago at the age of three.

It’s hard to say exactly what the testers found since the exam took place away from parents, said McCord, who is now the chair of programming and recruitment at the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative, which tutors underrepresented students vying for seats at the city’s selective high schools. (The exam still takes place separate from parents.)

McCord remembers his daughter telling him that the psychologist had showed her a picture of a person walking a fish on a leash, and she was able to say it should be a dog. In the next phase of the test, where she was observed by a team of adults, his daughter remembers playing with another kid.

Based on those experiences, she got into Hunter elementary school, stayed through high school, and is now a student at Harvard. (Students who finish sixth grade at the school earn a seat in the high school, though some families will be asked beforehand to find a different place for their child, officials said.)

Hunter no longer tests children at age three; instead the process is for four-year-olds. But the basic idea — that based on an IQ test and an observation at a very young age, the school can identify gifted children — is something Hunter stands by. Officials said the Stanford-Binet V exam it uses is the oldest and most widely used measure of aptitude in the country and noted that they consult with experts to ensure their admissions standards are appropriate.

Others, however, say testing such young children can miss their academic potential, capturing wealth and privilege instead.

“There’s just a really strong argument to be made that when you’re testing four-year-olds, at that age, an awful lot of what you’re measuring seems to be about the social advantage that students have had up to that point as opposed to innate potential,” said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on school integration.

And tacking on a $350 price tag is almost certain to exclude more families.

“Even in the best case scenario, it’s hard to imagine the admissions process, as it exists now, actually finding and serving gifted low-income students,” Potter said.

Hunter has begun outreach to some Head Start programs, which provide federally funded pre-K, and waives fees for families there. Officials at Hunter also said they would work with other families who couldn’t pay. But they said they didn’t know how many Head Start students had been admitted, and didn’t track how many students had gotten the fee reduced. The price, they said, reflects the psychologist’s time.

For some parents, however, those explanations provide little solace — especially when their child isn’t admitted. One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she “scrimped and saved” to afford the psychologist’s test several years ago after her husband was laid off. When the test day came, a stranger took her daughter into a room. A few days later, she was told her daughter had not passed.

Feeling like she had lost hundreds of dollars, and not knowing why, was difficult to take, she said. “You have no idea what was said because you weren’t in the room with the psychologist. It was just total agony.”

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Jennifer and Jayden Tolliver stand outside of a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. Jayden just missed the cutoff to get into Hunter this year.

There’s another way into Hunter, though, for students who don’t win seats before losing baby teeth.

Students from across the city who score well on their fifth-grade state tests can sit for an entrance exam in sixth grade, which includes an essay. That looks a lot like the one-test admissions method currently under fire at the city’s eight specialized high schools.

The mayor and schools chancellor have both criticized the Specialized High School Admissions Test as a blunt instrument that excludes gifted students from all over the city. Their criticism has broken open a debate about how to select students for seats at coveted city schools. Members of the Asian community in particular have defended the test as an objective marker of talent and hard work that gives immigrant families a shot to send students to top schools.

Some make similar arguments about the Hunter entrance exam. Standing in the courtyard at New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, a gifted elementary school in Manhattan, Cecilia Feliciano said her son just passed Hunter’s test and will be attending the school next year for seventh grade.

Feliciano, who lives in Queens, said she is an immigrant from the Philippines who couldn’t afford test prep, so she downloaded materials and worked with her son to study for the exam. The test allowed her son to compete on an equal footing with more affluent students from around the city, she said.

“It means a lot to me to have have an equalizer, but you have to work hard,” Feliciano said. “It takes a lot of work, passion, love.”

But like with the SHSAT, preparation for the Hunter exam is costly for many families. A test prep class for the Hunter exam in Manhattan can cost $3,000. Some private tutors who specialize in the Hunter exam charge up to $350 per hour.

And unlike the SHSAT, which students take in eighth grade, students take the Hunter exam in sixth — well before many students are thinking about high school. That catches many students, like Ethan Moses, now a freshman at Manhattan Village Academy, off guard.

Moses said he heard about the test a couple weeks before it was administered. He figured he would apply the skills he learned at Success Academy, but he didn’t recall any of his classmates making the cut, he said. (Success officials said they do not track how many students are admitted to Hunter.)

“The mail came in out of nowhere and said we were taking the test,” Moses said. “None of us were really prepared.”

Alternatively, even if students know about the test, qualify for it, and can prepare for it, the crux of the problem could be the entrance exam itself, critics say.

The entrance exam is not created by a national testing company, but by teachers at Hunter College High School.

“It’s a home-created test,” said Kissack, the retired math teacher who worked on test questions himself, which means “we have no idea how valid it is.”

Hunter officials defend the test by saying that the school’s results speak for themselves: The school has graduated a number of notable alumni and the test has been consistently able to identify students who excel in Hunter’s rigorous academic environment, they said. They also said the test has been able to consistently find students who are able to excel in Hunter’s challenging environment.

But Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard who has studied standardized testing, says pointing to successful alumni is not a good way to figure out if a test truly measures whether students are gifted. It’s incumbent on schools to figure out if the school is missing good candidates — not just whether the candidates who are selected succeed, he said.

“Are they denying admissions to kids who are lower [test scorers] who would also be equally successful?” Koretz said. “The answer to that question is almost certainly yes,” which means administrators need to be able to justify why their test should be used to select students.

The answer to that question could have mattered a lot to Jayden Tolliver, who is black, on the math team at his middle school in Harlem, and a self-proclaimed “book nerd.”

His fifth-grade state test results qualified him for the Hunter test, and he spent last fall and winter preparing for it through the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative. (Sometimes, his mom said, she could hear him doing math problems in his sleep.)

Hunter told Tolliver that he scored well enough on the multiple choice portion of the test, but his essay wasn’t strong enough to earn a seat at the school.

On a recent afternoon, Tolliver wandered through a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side looking for something to read. He’s disappointed that he didn’t make it into Hunter, but said he’s ready to start thinking about finding another high school to take his love of math.

“I was just born liking this stuff,” he said.

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.