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What Stuyvesant High School Was For Me


Stuyvesant HS

Stuyvesant High School (photo: Jim Henderson via Wikipedia)


When I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in June of 2001, I remember feeling sad to be moving on from my friends and excited to be moving on to college. But I also remember an overwhelming sense of relief that I would no longer have to deal with the tests that formed the backbone of the Stuyvesant High School experience.

The tests didn’t start at the end of the first semester or even during midterms freshman year. They did not even start on the day that I made the trip down to Battery Park to take the “Stuy test.” Rather, they started toward the end of middle school, spending Saturday mornings in a hotel conference room in midtown Manhattan, taking a prep course run by a Stuyvesant math teacher (who, when I was a sophomore, would give me the lowest grade of my high school career). I remember that many of us wore our soccer uniforms and cleats to class because we had to hurry off to games immediately afterwards.

By this time I had been subjected to plenty of high-stakes exams: pre-school interviews, citywide exams, a fifth grade full of tests and interviews to get into well-regarded public middle schools, and, even after I had started attending one such school, the Hunter test, on which I did not come remotely close to earning the admission score. I understood some of those tests to be more important than others, but none carried the weight of the ones related to Stuyvesant. The implication, starting with preparations for the SHSAT, and continuing at a pace of six or more exams per semester during my time at Stuyvesant and additionally highlighted by the SAT, was that how I performed on each exam was going to impact the rest of my life.

My parents did not pressure me to get into Stuyvesant or seem to care about where I went to college (though it was always understood I would go). They did pressure me to do the homework the prep course assigned, and I recall that I did it. I scored a 560 on the exam -- the cutoff was 559 -- and was excited to be accepted as, technically speaking, the dumbest kid in school. I called a close friend who told me he had missed getting in by one question. He would be going to Bronx Science. Even though we only lived a few blocks away from each other, we drifted apart after that.

The pressure was entirely driven by the culture surrounding Stuyvesant. Other than the occasional creative writing course or class led by an outside-the-box thinking history teacher, Stuyvesant was all about tests. The midterms and finals were inflexible and merciless. Scantrons were everywhere. “What did you get on the test?” was a frequent question, one that had to be asked with a level of tact that high school kids are seldom capable of.

Even though I was, relative to my classmates, an unmotivated, average student, content to get Bs and take “remedial” Spanish and math (which at Stuyvesant meant taking ninth-grade Spanish as a ninth-grader and not taking calculus), I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and scribble math equations on a piece of paper next to my bed. At my mom’s advice, I took to sleeping with textbooks underneath my pillow the night before tests, hoping to learn just a little more through osmosis.

At the end of one semester there was a rash of episodes involving fire alarms getting pulled and the school being unnecessarily evacuated. It was rumored that they caught the culprit by identifying a single student who had an exam scheduled on each of the days an evacuation occurred. Students whispered that we could not access the patio outside the fifth floor cafeteria because the administration was afraid if we were allowed on it there would be suicides. It was said we were not given class rankings for the same reason.

Cheating, which relied both on old-fashioned methods and newfangled technology like cell phones and digital cameras, was rampant. Some kids cheated to get the grades they felt they needed and some kids cheated just to get by. Some kids just disappeared, presumably moving on to schools where things were a little less intense. I remember crying in a taxi on the way home from college night as a sophomore because it was clear I could not even expect to get into “Wash U. in St. Louis.”

Exams aside, there was a lot of fun to be had at Stuy. I wrote for the sports section of the school newspaper. A review of the yearbook tells me there were more than 90 clubs, including something called “The Real,” devoted to “underground hip-hop music,” that I was the president of -- it is my recollection that we had no budget or formal meetings. I played backup tight end on the football team, which I am not sure I could have done at another school. Significantly, in my experience the football team was one of the few places at Stuyvesant where Asian, black, Hispanic, and white students really spent time together (the cheerleading team was a similarly integrated group).

I can still remember all the different parts of the school where students of particular races congregated almost exclusively and I suspect that my classmates can as well. On the second floor where the main entrance and exit was located, there was a “senior bar” -- basically a waist-high counter surrounded by lockers -- that at the time I would have said was the epicenter of the social life of the school but I now realize was overwhelmingly white. There was another “bar” that was widely referred to as the “Asian bar” on the sixth floor. I recall that there was an area behind the escalators on the fifth floor where African-American students hung out.

The exact demographic makeup of the school at the time is difficult to find online, but as I recall, Asian students made up about half the school, with white students making up most of the other half. As now, the percentage of black and Hispanic students was well below 10%. I am sure that Stuyvesant has changed in many ways since I left, but in some important ones, it has not.

Like most alums, it is through my perspective from and since my time at Stuyvesant that I view the ongoing debate about how -- and whether -- specialized high school admissions should be reformed. Stuyvesant needs to be more diverse and it is not entirely clear how best to make that happen.

What I find missing from the debate is a discussion about how the “Stuy test” and the Stuyvesant experience are linked. If students are not going to be admitted based on their ability to excel on a single, high-pressure exam, they should not be evaluated primarily based on high-pressure exams. It seems likely that a student body admitted to Stuyvesant based on criteria other than the SHSAT would benefit from a reduced emphasis on testing. It may even be that all students, including current Stuyvesant students, would benefit from a reduced emphasis on testing.

At the same time, the iteration of Stuyvesant I attended left me very well prepared for college and law school. I feel strongly that I was always going to be an average student in high school. At an underperforming school, that might mean barely graduating. At Stuyvesant, that meant a B average and a partial scholarship to Lehigh University. Many New York City students would benefit from the education I received, regardless of how they are admitted to the school or how painful it might be while they are there.

***
Jonathan Fisher is a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, class of 2001, and an attorney. His opinions are his own.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Holding Polluters Accountable is as Important Now as Ever


2016 adri chall

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The summer season is in full swing, with New Yorkers flocking to weekend getaways across the state, from Coney Island to Long Island beaches to the Catskills and beyond. But it is critical that we remain vigilant as good stewards of our shared natural treasures. With environmental protections under siege from the current federal administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is imperative that New Yorkers understand and exercise their civil justice rights to protect their communities and hold polluters accountable.

For years, our ability to enjoy and access New York’s natural treasures has been made possible in part by the environmental advocacy fostered by many committed individuals and the state’s civil justice system, which allows victims to hold negligent polluters financially accountable for adverse health impacts, drinking water contamination, and property damage.

From the Gowanus Canal to sports fields in Red Hook and the ongoing public health crisis in Hoosick Falls, we must remain strong in standing up to bad actors and polluters by protecting and exercising our civil justice rights, particularly in the absence of effective federal oversight.

New York State’s civil justice system provides people with the ability to hold companies and industries responsible when their actions put the public at risk. In a court of law, people injured by negligence and reckless endangerment have been able to address corporate transgressions and hold bad actors accountable.

For communities and residents up against powerful entities with overwhelming resources, the civil justice system often is the only way to get big, influential interests to do the right thing. Ordinary, hardworking New Yorkers are no match for a well-funded public relations campaign and a skilled team of professional lobbyists.

And for victims of dangerous, debilitating diseases and conditions caused by reckless pollution, the civil justice system serves as a mechanism to account for onerous and often overwhelming medical costs. It often spurs meaningful legislative action and oversight as well, to prevent further harm.

Over the past century, the civil court system has shaped environmental reform and delivered justice to communities time and time again. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hooker Chemical Company used a property in Niagara Falls known as Love Canal as a dumpsite for toxic chemical waste and contaminants.

Two decades after the town of Niagara Falls took over the land and developed it for residential purposes, homeowners noticed a suspicious black fluid flowing out of the canal, leading to widespread discovery of its use as a dumpsite, as well as the pollution’s harmful health effects on the community, including higher rates of miscarriage, birth defects, and leukemia.

Activists and residents were outraged at the company’s failure to consider the impacts of their actions or even to bother informing the community years later of what was done. Executives were never jailed or held accountable in a criminal court – but they were forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with the EPA and affected residents.

The Love Canal calamity is widely viewed as a catalyst for stricter federal regulations that were subsequently put in place to protect the environment and our communities.

Fast forward to today, in Hoosick Falls, an effort is in motion to hold Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, Inc., accountable for dangerous contamination of the water supply—an important step toward bringing justice to this community and its residents.

There should be no question that any companies that pollute our communities and poison our children will be identified, held accountable, and forced to right their wrongs. We must always be vigilant.

Our communities, the health of our neighbors and loved ones, and our prized state environmental treasures must be protected. In an era of federal inaction, a strong civil justice system remains the cornerstone of an active and engaged public and empowers all of us to look out for and protect one another.

***
Matt Funk is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. On Twitter @_mattfunk.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era


mayorsoffice rikers island

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Under the Trump administration, we are seeing escalated attacks against immigrant communities across the country. Raids, workplace sweeps, and the detention of Dreamers, asylum seekers, and other immigrants have led to the daily separation of families.

More than any other city, New York City has been proactive in responding to these attacks. At the center of our efforts to support our immigrant community is the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) — the nation’s first universal legal defense program for immigrants facing deportation.

Over the last four years, NYIFUP has set the national standard for protecting the due process rights of immigrants and keeping families together.  

Research shows that detained immigrants with access to legal counsel have a 48% probability of success in immigration court, as compared to 4% without access to counsel.  

Moreover, the New York City Council has made significant investments in complementary initiatives, including providing representation to immigrant children, survivors of domestic violence, asylum seekers, and those applying for U.S. citizenship.  

Our comprehensive legal services effort ensures income is not a barrier to obtaining quality, trustworthy representation for many immigrants at risk of deportation.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio has dangerously limited due process to many more at risk of deportation by quietly implementing a policy that excludes immigrants, including veterans, with certain convictions from qualifying for representation through our legal defense programs.

New York City already mandates universal appointment of counsel in Family Court and Housing Court. Appointed counsel in those courts is based on financial need, not on a person’s criminal record.

A criminal record may, at times, be a factor for a judge deciding the merits of the case, but it’s never a factor in deciding who deserves an attorney. We must have the same standard in our immigration courts that we do in family and housing.

Elected officials, especially those who proclaim a progressive identity, should not fuel the nation’s deportation machine by limiting due process at a time like this.

Instead, we have a duty to do everything in our power to ensure a level playing field in a system that is heavily weighted against people of color and immigrants, who all too often are ensnared by a system set up to criminalize them.

The mayor’s approach is dangerous. We reject his exclusionary policy and urge him to restore our legal services programs to universal representation models without discriminatory exclusions.

Our legal services programs do not determine who gets to stay in the country and who doesn’t — that is the role of our courts. Instead, our publicly funded programs help immigrants understand the proceedings they are in, as well as their legal rights and obligations.

Making certain individuals ineligible for legal services strips them of a meaningful opportunity to have their day in court — leaving immigrants subject to deportation to countries where their lives may be at risk and allowing for the senseless separation of families.

We would do well to remember the words of retired Immigration Judge Paul Grussendorf, who explained, “it is un-American to detain someone, send them to a remote facility where they have no contact with family, place them in legal proceedings where they are often unable to comprehend, and not to provide counsel for them.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are the laboratories of democracy. We add that cities are the spark of genius that drives innovation in our democracy.

New York City has led the way in protecting the rights of immigrants. We must expand on that progress — not turn back. Other cities across the nation are looking to us as beacons of progress.

As descendants of immigrants and LGBTQ members of the New York City Council, and as New Yorkers, we are committed to eradicating inequality, discrimination, and barriers to fairness in our great city.

We are committed to universal representation and due process for all immigrant New Yorkers.

Justice is on our side.

***
Carlos Menchaca and Daniel Dromm are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Menchaca chairs the Council’s immigration committee, while Dromm is chair of the finance committee. On Twitter @cmenchaca and @Dromm25.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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