educational equity · homeschooling · NYC Schools · student voices

NYC Teen Says: Those Who Benefit Most From the School System Are Those Who Are Lucky Enough Not To Need It

It wasn’t individual willpower or any unique rebellious tendencies that allowed me to escape my junior year at Stuyvesant High School and begin homeschooling myself. Instead, it was that many students were pushed out of my way in order for me to reach this exit. I hope my writing about my experience will offer some insight or be of some assistance to those wishing to explore new paths. I am well-educated not because I worked hard, but because of my circumstances, which made the school system something I could exploit most effectively as, ultimately, I didn’t truly need it.

My parents and grandparents imbued in me a level of science education and a vocabulary sufficient to get me through most of K-8 hardly having to expend any effort. My mother is a professional writer. Her immigrant parents are a biochemist and a former chemistry teacher and programmer. My father is a math and science teacher. Both my African-American paternal grandparents have advanced degrees. Knowledge was inevitable. 

As a result, I was placed in advanced classes, granting me an incredible math teacher in the sixth and eighth grades, which only enhanced my apparent skill. My school happened to replace their previous science teacher with a much better one by the time I was in seventh grade, studying biology. That teacher was my best science teacher for two years, until I took AP Environmental Science as a freshman at Stuyvesant.

I didn’t want to go to Stuyvesant. Due to familial financial factors, I was denied early college, despite having been accepted in eighth grade. That was my first true escape attempt, trying to cut my schooling short. So, I tried a different escape tactic: arguing with my parents that they should allow me to homeschool. They denied my requests. I took my place at Stuyvesant through no initiative of my own. 

Before I started Stuyvesant, my brother, who had also attended, encouraged me to take Regents exams. I took the Living Environment Regents, among others, and passed easily thanks to my seventh grade biology teacher’s pedagogical skill. This allowed me to be placed into AP Environmental Science my freshman year, perpetuating my circumstance of being placed in advanced classes.

One factor that makes advanced classes so much more effective for my and other students’ learning is that schools preemptively filter out any students judged “unprepared”. Many have been purged from my path by forces beyond my – and their – control (admissions officers, scheduling algorithms, The Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council), not only clearing the highway for me, but paving a personal exit, as well. Those who have been pushed out of my way are those who weren’t taught to navigate this highway as well I was. They are doomed to drive on. They missed the exit that I used, but it’s not their fault; I was given a more accurate map. I was given options which prevented me from being reliant on continued standard schooling.

A major component of why I’m less reliant on continued schooling are the exceptional teachers I’ve had, many of whom are experts in their subject matter. My APES teacher and my sixth and eighth grade math teacher are the most obvious examples, but my music teacher from sixth to eighth grade is an expert as well, or, at least, his doctorate in music from Harvard would imply that. He made his class engaging, so I learned, even though I’m not personally particularly partial to music as a subject. When I got to high school, I didn’t impress my Music Appreciation teacher, but the knowledge I had been taught by my previous music teacher did.

To be fair, I wasn’t prepared wholly in spite of myself. I did my homework and schoolwork. But that too requires preparation which one cannot do for oneself. Nobody has ever toilet trained themselves, yet whether or not a child is toilet trained can influence whether they will start preschool this year or the next. The current system might as well be a game of chutes and ladders. No system that truly helps people penalizes them or lets them suffer due to  happenstance, nor does it let chance push some people ahead.

I started programming by chance when my mother won some Scratch lessons in a preschool raffle. (She’d intended them for my brother, but I embraced them more.) This was in 2011 when I was eight years old. My early skill with Scratch gave me a distinct advantage when the “everyone should learn to code” fad began around 2013, the year that my advantage led to my winning a scholarship for “talented” students. I don’t know how many students had to lose for me to win, but at every level of my apparent achievement, others have been moved out of my way by forces I couldn’t control.

Many people, myself included, were denied admission to my K-8. I was accepted after being applied a second time because I was judged “too young” the first year that my parents applied me. I’m sure that just as many applicants were denied admission that second year, as well. Even after being admitted, many students were prevented from joining various advanced classes at the school, even myself briefly. Some of those who ultimately were placed in advanced classes did so as a result of parental complaints to the school.

Some students and their parents judged themselves unprepared for the school in general. My incoming kindergarten class had 45 students. Three students joined in the intervening years. In eighth grade, 28 students graduated. Most of the vanishing students were placed in other schools. Their parents, to ensure their children’s progress, chose a different path when they saw that their child was unprepared. That’s the privilege of not needing what you’ve been given. It’s also a symptom of an incorrect system when those who don’t need, have, and those who do need, lack.

Thousands of people are rejected from Stuyvesant every year, including many people who had much more to gain by attending than I do, and who put in much more work to prepare for the SHSAT than I needed to, because I was already prepared simply by having attended the K-8 to which my parents got me accepted.

Even after getting into Stuyvesant, many people were not adequately prepared to take certain classes, and others were prevented from taking classes they were prepared for. Each semester during course scheduling, each ambitious student gets to watch, and refresh Talos as available seats in classes they want disappear, and they can only pray that somebody relinquishes their spot to make room for them. 

On the other hand, I saw people suffering from sleep deprivation and being overworked during the year, and I saw many summer school schedules being distributed in June. Unlike those who left my K-8, most of these students can’t just switch to another, more expensive, more nurturing school. If a system has unlimited room for failure and limited room for advancement, what do you think it was designed for? 

Obviously, it’s easier to let go, and let someone fall off a cliff than to pull them up with you, and you’ll probably be better off for dropping them. (I’m certainly better off for having taken certain classes only with students who were adequately prepared for those classes and with teachers who were sufficiently overprepared.) But, nobody is born on the edge of a cliff without something having gone horribly wrong beforehand, so maybe we should prevent people from dangling off cliffs with only a stranger to decide whether they live or die.

Someone else would have gone to my K-8 in my place, if I hadn’t been accepted. Another student could have taken any of the classes I’ve taken at Stuyvesant if I hadn’t been there. If I hadn’t won that scholarship in 2013, somebody else would have.

A correct system actively and proactively counteracts all circumstantial penalties affecting everybody. A correct system meets everyone where they are, according to their needs which they themselves are best suited to determine, not some board of administrators. Currently, those who benefit most from the system are those who are lucky enough not to need it: people who can buy their way through life, and people given skills beyond what educational institutions reward.

Structuring education as a zero-sum game only serves to divide students. As Emma Goldman wrote in 1906, the education system “must of necessity produce individuals foreign to one another, and in everlasting antagonism with each other.” Anybody I displaced could easily be resentful of me in the same way that many people complain about immigrants “taking” their jobs, (or “taking” their spots at Stuyvesant) but that excuses and ignores the incorrect systems. Systems which were created by people and which can be changed or destroyed by people, but only through cooperation. It is possible to create a system that meets people’s needs and to eliminate this tradition of giving to those who have, and letting languish those who lack.

What do you think?

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