Posted on 14 December 2011.
As Bronx residents, Farhana Begum (left) and Ashmera Mohamed (right) are outnumbered by their classmates from Queens at the Bronx High School of Science. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)
Every weekday when school is out, the quiet streets surrounding the prestigious Bronx High School of Science are crammed with dozens of privately operated school buses, hired to transport hundreds of the school’s 3,000 students out of the Bronx.
“Those are the buses that take everyone back to Queens and Manhattan,” said Farhana Begum, a senior from Parkchester, as she watched the bus fleets depart.
Nearly two-thirds of the school’s students come from Queens, according to a Department of Education spokesperson, while only 14 percent come from the Bronx.
“The joke is that the school should be called ‘the Queens High School of Science’,” said Begum. “A lot of the kids think Bronx Science should just move to Queens.”
The elite high school in Bedford Park once drew more than 90 percent of its student body from the borough’s middle schools. Over the years, however, the number of Bronx students has been steadily declining, a symptom of changing demographics and poor test preparation.
Many of the Bronx students who do manage to get into the competitive school find themselves struggling to adjust academically and socially to a student body that is in large part wealthier and better prepared. The consequence is that these students are both outliers within their own communities, and outliers within the storied institution that sits right in their backyard.
When 12th grader Aysha Sultana first came to the Bronx High School of Science from her middle school in Tremont, it was the first time she felt a divide between herself as a Bronx resident, and other New Yorkers from the rest of the city.
“Many of my classmates come from richer or nicer neighborhoods than mine,” said Sultana, adding that many of her friends from middle school attend nearby DeWitt Clinton High School, a neighborhood school. “I sometimes feel like there’s a big gap financially between Bronx students and those from other boroughs.”
Begum, along with Sultana, is one of six friends within their social circle that all live in the Bronx, taking a combination of buses and trains to get to school.
“Generally, the kids from Queens come from wealthier backgrounds,” said Begum. “Their parents paid for some sort of prep for them.”
The Bronx High School of Science is one of eight specialized public high schools in the city, famous for their selective student bodies based off the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). However, most struggling middle schools in the Bronx do not offer the test preparation that is available in other schools, resulting in only a handful of students from the borough who are able to qualify for a coveted spot.
“Bronx students have to make new friends here, because most likely they are the only ones from the community who got into the school,” said Begum, who was the only student from her school, I.S. 125, to be accepted at any of the city’s specialized high schools. “It can sometimes be a difficult transition.”
Ashmera Mohamed, a senior from Castle Hill, recalled how she helped proctor the SHSAT at the school this past October for Bronx eighth graders.
“We treat it like a joking matter, like ‘look at all these kids coming in, only a few of them will make it,’” said Mohamed. “You already know it. You don’t expect a lot of people from the Bronx to make it in.”
Besides low expectations, Bronx students also have to contend with negative stereotypes of their borough once they arrive.
“Most people think ‘ghetto’ when they hear someone is from the Bronx, which is offensive,” said Sultana, the senior from Tremont. “I think people are aware of how few students go here from the Bronx, but expectations of kids from the Bronx isn’t too high.”
The culling of the city’s most talented students into elite schools like Bronx Science can also present different academic challenges for these students, many who went from being the stars of their middle schools, to now finding themselves suddenly in a sea of smart students.
“I didn’t have a good foundation,” said Begum. “I came here, and didn’t know things about history and stuff that the other students here knew.”
Begum described how within the first week of her freshman year at the school, she discovered most of her new friends were valedictorians at their respective middle schools.
“It’s hard for me to accept the fact that I’m not the smartest person in the place anymore,” said Begum, who was also valedictorian of her middle-school class. “But you can either be the smartest person in a dumb school, or an average person in a smart school. You pick which one you want to do.”
Of the more than 13,500 eight graders in Bronx schools, only about 2.5 percent were accepted into the city’s specialized high schools last year, according to the Bronx Borough President’s Office. However, it was not always this way.
“If you went through my high school yearbook, most of the kids came from the West Bronx,” said Andy Wolf, a graduate of the school from the 1960s, and now publisher of the Bronx Press-Review. “And these weren’t rich kids, but working class kids.”
Former school administrators estimated the school’s student body was once nearly 90 percent from the Bronx, but began to change as the borough’s share of middle class families declined, quality of schools dropped off, and poorer Hispanic and African-American residents moved into the borough.
“I think it began to change as we moved into the 1960s,” explained Milton Kopelman, a former principal of Bronx Science, who began teaching at the school in 1949. “The changes had to do with the fact that many middle class people who lived in the Bronx moved out, and we began to see more kids coming from Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.”
When Kopelman retired as principal of the school in 1990, he said Bronx students made up about 20 percent of the student body.
In response primarily to the declining number of black and Hispanic students who qualified for the specialized high schools, the city began a special year-long training program known as the Specialized High Schools Institute. However, many education experts said the program is ineffective, with the number of minority students gaining admission to the schools dropping in recent years.
“These programs are not going to be able to compensate for going to a bad school,” said Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who has studied race and education. “They really haven’t addressed the root of the problem: unequal access to good schools earlier that have external supports that the other schools receive.” Noguera said that unless specialized high schools expand their admissions criteria beyond SHSAT scores, students with the best test preparation within their middle schools would always have an advantage.
Some private test preparation programs can run into the thousands of dollars, which coupled with institutionalized support from middle schools, can guarantee many students spots at the city’s specialized high schools.
“My middle school had pretty high standards and the teachers helped a lot,” said 10th grader Thomas Nguyen, who attended Marie Curie Middle School in Bayside, Queens. Nguyen was among 35 eighth-graders admitted to Bronx Science in his year. “My parents sent me to a prep class. I think it was a few thousand dollars.”
Some Bronx students who can afford test preparation also flock to Queens, like 11th grader Ekramul Gofur, who paid upwards of $80 a week for a SHSAT tutoring course.
“It was pretty helpful. It was better than what I was getting elsewhere,” said Gofur, a South Bronx resident and graduate of M.S. 128. “My middle school didn’t do much.”
Even among the middle schools in the Bronx, there is a vast difference between the levels of preparation a student might receive for this critical test.
M.S. 80 in Norwood for example, did not have a single student accepted into any of the specialized high schools. In contrast, The Pace Academy at M.S. 118 had 34. The school, which houses a “gifted and talented” program, conducts its own rigorous admissions process that makes getting into a specialized high school look easy: students need to score in the high 600s on their elementary standardized test scores, submit teacher recommendations, write an entrance exam, and go through an interview with school officials.
“There are probably many students who would do well academically in a specialized high school, but they may not have the specialized high school test prep,” said Megan Franco, director of the Pace Academy. “It’s getting in that’s the difficult part.”
Administrators at Bronx Science declined to be interview for this article. Officials from the Department of Education said they are aware that Bronx students don’t have a strong track record getting into the city’s specialized high schools, yet the issue is not a particularly pressing one for the office.
“While the Mayor was committed to placing a specialized school on every borough, that does not mean that their focus is providing borough-based enrollment,” explained Thomas Francis, a spokesperson with the DOE. “The specialized admissions process does not really allow for that kind of preference, although there may be borough based outreach efforts going on at the school level or through community groups.”
Alumni from the elite schools have made efforts in recent years to provide test preparation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“There isn’t much test prep going on in the Bronx,” said Michael Mascetti, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, and founder of the Science Schools Initiative. Mascetti’s organization works to tutor lower-income students in the Bronx and Washington Heights to write the SHSAT. “Bronx Science is the best public high school in the Bronx, and the fact that so few students from the Bronx go there or to any specialized high school is important.”
Other alumni of the specialized high schools view the matter differently.
“We do have outreach programs seeking students who perhaps are not getting what they need for the entrance exam,” said Linda Klayman, executive director of Bronx Science’s alumni association. “But the alumni organization can’t be concerned about the admissions process. This is a test school. Individual alumni always wish everyone would get the opportunity.”
One mother of a Bronx Science 9th grader, who lives within walking distance from the school, remembered a parent information meeting held at the school that was overwhelmingly filled with those from Manhattan and Queens.
“They were giving out bumper stickers that said, ‘It’s worth the trip’,” said Shanti Knock.
Still, the few students from the Bronx said they believe they can overcome the stigma of their borough with hard work. They would not want to be in any other school. It has graduated some of the most renowned Bronxites in American history, such as Nobel laureate and physicist Melvin Schwartz and two-time Pulitzer prize winner Gene Weingarten.
“You start all over coming here, at the bottom of the ladder,” said Begum. “One thing I honestly do believe is that where you come from doesn’t determine where you are going.”