Making The Grade

By Gordon J. Ebanks

What I Learned Talking to my High School’s Valedictorians

People in this country get to where they get because they either work hard or they don’t; they sink or they swim, the wheat gets separated from the chaff, right? In New York, the nation’s largest city and my hometown, students are subjected to a sort of intellectual segregation from as young an age as four, replete with separate classrooms, teachers, and even entire schools for the city’s “gifted and talented.” At every academic level, students are packaged into schools and programs pre-fitted for their “cognitive ability,” culminating in the Standardized High School Admissions Test — a high-stakes entrance exam for eighth-graders pining for a spot in one of the city’s specialized high schools.

Stuyvesant High School, my alma mater, is the most selective of these schools with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard’s. Stuyvesant administers more Advanced Placement exams than any other high school in the world and in recent years about a quarter of its students go on to the Ivy League or other selective colleges. Elite universities, in the American imagination, represent the apotheosis of success in the meritocratic jeremiad of the American high school student. However, the journey to Harvard is just as much part of the Harvard experience as an undergraduate’s four years here.

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