The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a complaint with the US Department of Education on September 27. They objected to the written test, known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which the city uses to select students who will attend eight highly regarded high schools.
Today, The Wall Street Journal reported on the adoption of a change to a test used as a part of the admissions process for the city’s gifted and talented program for students from kindergarten through third grade.
These are complex issues and we intend to be involved in the public discussion of this subject. We start by recounting the experience of this blogger when he first encountered the Board Of Education and its procedures for sorting students.
This subject is of particular interest to me because of my own experiences in the New York City school system many years ago.
When I was five years old I was enrolled in kindergarten in our neighborhood school (PS 152, in the Inwood section of Manhattan). At midyear, the children were screened for promotion to the first grade. The teachers found that I could already read and write. They felt there was no point in sending me to the first or second grades in order to learn what I already knew.
The school placed me in what was called the Health Improvement class, which was an early version of Special Ed. The class included obese kids, stutterers and other boys and girls who did not fit the physical norm for various reasons. I was the youngest and smallest boy in the class of about thirty students.
My classmates and I took naps from ll:30am to noon each day. When we completed any written work or answered a lot of problems, we brought our work to the teacher’s desk, and she would read and correct it while we stood there. That was individual instruction, although I did not realize it at the time. After two years, I was transferred to a fifth grade class, under a program called I.G. The teachers told us that the initials stood for Individual Guidance, but we kids knew it really meant Intellectually Gifted. The teachers did not want us to know that and become arrogant.
From then on, I was part of a regular class, which consisted, however, of the best readers in the school. Each grade was divided into six sections, because six times thirty was roughly the number of children in the grade. The sections were numbered from 5-op (for opportunity) through 5-5, the higher class numbers indicating lower scores in reading and math.
In the eighth grade the 5-op name was changed to R.A. for rapid advancement and the class all skipped another semester. After ninth grade I graduated from JHS 52, the local junior high school.
Most of the students in the R.A. class took the test for Bronx Science, Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. Years later my two brothers also passed the Bronx Science test. Science then had predominantly Jewish students. Today, Stuyvesant is 72% Asian. Which school you chose was often a matter of geography; Inwood was at the northern end of Manhattan, and Science was a trolley ride away, across the 207th Street Bridge to Fordham Road, then east to Creston Avenue.
Every day I was given fifty cents by my parents; 22 cents for the school lunch, provided with the help of the US Department of Agriculture; 10 cents for a round trip on the bus; 3 cents for the New York Times and 2 cents for the Daily News. Two modest packages of dried fruit cost 5 cents. This left me about 10 cents for discretionary spending, often 5-cent candy bars.
As I recall sixty-five years later, the teachers were pretty good; some were excellent and nicer than others. The kids in the 5-op class were bright, with some aiming to go to medical or dental schools after college. After the school day ended, the boys usually played softball in the school yard. I didn’t play, partly because of my size and partly because of a lack of eye-hand coordination. I did play ball in front of our five-story apartment house on Post Avenue, where I found other boys and girls who were closer to my size.
My recollections of elementary school are positive. However junior high school was not so good. My problem then was doing homework, which began when we took up long division late in the fourth grade. Until then I could answer any question I was asked in my head, but when it came to moving numbers from one column to another, the added step of writing them down and carrying them over exceeded my limit.
The students were also assigned to write notebooks on a subject we could choose. I selected World War II, and wrote compositions about major battles and campaigns from the point of view of the Allies. The hardest part of the compositions was writing neatly with a quill pen, which we dipped into an inkwell on the desk. The ink sometimes ran and would always be hard to blot.
A very nice girl named Stephanie Winkler sat at the desk in front of me. She had strawberry blond hair, which I was tempted, from time to time, to dip into the inkwell. I generally resisted that temptation, and I apologize sincerely for those occasions when I did not. Stephanie, wherever you are, please forgive me.
Our classes were formed on what is called homogenous grouping, bringing together children based on their ability to read and write. It worked fine for us, and it made for a lot of bonding between the students. The main chasm was between the boys and the girls, whose seats began on the opposite side of the classroom. Nevertheless, there was general amity and congeniality between the genders, especially as the kids grew up.
I wonder what effect the age gap between my classmates and me had on my school work. My high school grades were above average. By college I had abandoned schoolwork for student government and the college newspaper and my grades suffered. Still, I enjoyed it. I got into law school simply because of my high LSAT score.
This shows how the make-up of a class can be determined by what admission tests are chosen and how they are graded.
As the years pass, my memory of school days grow more positive, and I even feel a lot better about law school than I did at the time.
This alumni euphoria is described by Samuel Woodworth (1784-1842) (not William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)) who wrote these lines:
“How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
when fond recollection presents them to view!”
This is the first in a series of articles which will present a variety of opinions on the question of entrance examinations for specialized high schools.