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The Little Kid Who Used Big Words

I went to what was then called “intermediate school” (today a junior high) at I.S. 144 in the Bronx, a school named for Michelangelo.

At the time, I.S. 144 offered a special placement program. Kids like me who made it in could take the program as an “enrichment” to 7th and 8th grades, or they could “accelerate” and complete the equivalent of 7th through 9th grades over only two years. For context, at the time I was offered this choice, it was the fall of 1969. New York City, and the Bronx specifically, were not lovely then, and all I wanted was to get out as soon as possible. I took the accelerated option.

I also took, and passed, the test to get into The Bronx High School of Science. Along with Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn Technical High School, Bronx Science was open to New York City students who could pass the rigorous entrance exam. I arrived there in the fall of 1971.

When I got to Bronx Science, I was three months shy of my 14th birthday, and entering the 10th grade. The girls in my class looked like my older sister would have looked if I’d had one - which meant that I looked like their little brothers. They, predictably, wanted nothing to do with me.

Further, until the day I arrived at Bronx Science, I had always been the little kid who used big words. I hadn’t been trying to show off; I just read a lot and that was the way I spoke. People who knew me at home in the Bronx had always assumed I would go to Bronx Science. But one of the first things I discovered when I got there (besides that the girls were so much bigger than I was) was that I wasn’t the smartest person in the school, or in the class, or even necessarily in the row. Because you had to pass a challenging test to get in at all, everyone at Bronx Science was really smart.

The classes were difficult. The teachers moved quickly and demanded a lot. If you didn’t do your homework, there was nowhere to hide. I was overwhelmed, especially that first year. Neither of my parents had finished high school. They were not the sort of parents, unlike those of many of my classmates, who would look over my assignments and discuss my work with me.

Somehow I got through my first year. Things started to get easier after that, partly because the next year, there were people my own age in the school, even if a grade or two behind me. At least I had a social life. And although I never excelled academically at Bronx Science, I learned how to focus and I learned to admire the varied and highly polished talents of the people around me. This helped a lot later on, as I did excel at college and in my career, having adopted the standards that my peers at Science had set.

Then as now, Bronx Science was not a very ethnically diverse place. Back then, Jewish students like me were overrepresented relative to our place in the city’s population. Today, Asian students have taken that place. Then as now, there were calls to junk or downplay the admissions exam in the interest of racial or ethnical diversity. Then as now, the groups that tended to do well on the exam saw the flipside of this diversity push as an attempt to establish what amounted to quotas limiting their admission to the school, especially chilling when blue-blooded universities and educational institutions had widely imposed quotas limiting the number of Jewish students in the decades leading up to World War II.

The latest push to increase diversity in New York City’s most rigorous public high schools has received a boost from Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio has said he would like to end the policy restricting elite high school admission to those who score highest on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, the exam that a 1971 state law fixed as the sole criterion. In addition to the three schools affected by the law, the city currently uses the exam to determine admission to five other rigorous schools. As context for the test’s competitiveness, Bloomberg reported that 27,817 New York City students took the exam in 2014; 5,096 of them were admitted to one of the eight elite high schools. The mayor criticized the current system during his campaign and recently endorsed proposed state legislation that would change it.

Bills currently in the legislature would allow the use of other factors, including attendance, grades and other exam scores, in addition to the current test. Only the original three schools named in the state law would require legislation for such changes; de Blasio has the power to change admission processes at the remaining five schools without it. Other cities have tried systems that include a portion of available seats to be filled at the discretion of principals or that consider class grades over the course of several years. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote in a New York Times opinion column that Chicago’s highly selective public high schools use a tier-based system that allocates seats to the highest scoring students from four different socioeconomic tiers, a system that has paradoxically been criticized for creating both too much diversity and too little.

A difficult exam is not the only way to identify the students who will thrive, or even just survive, under the most academically rigorous curriculum you can throw at them. But it is a pretty good way of at least identifying immature, just-barely-teenaged students who will make it through the school despite a lack of preparedness, and who can learn to keep up with his bigger and better-prepared intellectual peers. Jean Kwok, who, like me, benefited from such identification, pointed out that “Children of highly-educated, well-off parents will always have the advantage in fulfilling any package of requirements,” and noted that adding more requirements and more complicated applications could actually hurt the very disadvantaged students that the reforms are purportedly designed to help.

The proposed changes also create another problem. Filling seats at Bronx Science with students chosen on the basis of middle school attendance or grades on less demanding tests won’t make the high school, or others like it, more racially diverse versions of what they are now. It will make them something else. It will mean that city parents who place the greatest academic demands on their children will find other places to educate them, whether at home, at private academies or, most likely, outside the five boroughs entirely.

If not enough kids pass the high school entrance exam in some neighborhoods, the best answer is to do whatever it takes to help them pass, not to get rid of the exam. Or we could simply acknowledge that we don’t want a school as academically challenging as we can make it if that means telling some people that they don’t have what it takes to survive there until they turn 15.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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