At the Head of the Class
So selective that it admits only 3 percent of the kids who take its intense entrance exam, Stuyvesant High School is the pride of New York City's public schools. In the spring of 2006, author and Washington Post reporter Alec Kleina Stuyvesant alumspent a semester with the teachers, students, and parents of the vaunted school to find out what makes it so special. His new book A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America's Best High Schools describes the experience.
Stuyvesant is praised for its graduation rates, Ivy League admissions, and test scores. What can other schools learn from it?
It's easy to say, "Of course, Stuyvesant has the exam-based admissions, and the students they get are already motivated and well equipped for high school," but after spending months in the school, it was clear to me that there is simply more to it than the test. [The students'] parents are so involved, and it made a huge difference. Any public school can encourage parents to get more involved in their kids' lives. Their parents were so involved, and they were not wealthy families for the most part. Many of [the parents] were immigrants who ran delis or drove taxis.
What else could other public schools try?
The other thing I noticed was at Stuyvesant, the students had so much freedom. They literally could hang out in the hallways for hours after school with virtually no supervision. There were some teachers and some security guards around, but basically there was such a high level of trust. It was like a home away from home for students. I think that is something thatto a degreeother schools could adopt.
How are Stuyvesant kids different from other students?
Some of the students are just off the charts. They are unlike any student anywhere. Someone like Milo the 10-year-old, he is a true genius. He doesn't like the term, but he is just beyond what almost any child that age could gain in terms of his abilities in math and, frankly, every subject.
So are schools like Stuyvesant necessary for kids like Milo?
There's a lot of attention in today's debates about education on the students who are struggling academically, and rightfully so; there should be a lot of attention on that. However, there's very little attention given to the gifted and talented like Milo and many of the students at Stuyvesant. And the irony is that these students to a large degree are the future leaders of the nation. There's a real need to pay attention to students like that.
What about the debate that this is a public school with an admissions test?
It's a fair question to ask. On one end, the taxpayers are all paying for this school, and it's only selecting a small fraction of students to attend it. It's more selective than Harvard University. I interviewed a lot of kids who did not get into Stuyvesant: I think it does have some effect on their self-image, and I'm not sure if that's fair. A lot of these kids are really just as smart as the students at Stuyvesant. In fact, I'm thinking of Bronx Science, which is a rival of Stuyvesant.
Do magnet schools hurt students at the normal high schools?
An education authority mentioned this to me: If you remove these high-achieving students from other schools, what are you leaving the other schools? You're not giving them good role models of students who are motivated and driven, and it hurts the performance of the whole school. I think that's true. It does raise some questions about what you are telling the students who don't get into these exam schools. At such a young age, are you telling them they aren't good enough? That's not fair. Like most things in life, there are shades of gray in education.
Jane, a teenage heroin addict, is another interesting person in the book.
That was really tough. It really was like watching a train wreck unfolding before your eyes. And what can you do? She was a case of a just incredibly gifted, wonderful human being unable to cope with a devastating addiction to heroin.
What's the one thing you would want a reader to remember after reading this book?
There is a great beauty in [the students'] thirst for knowledge. Everything was so important to them: the friendships and the tests tomorrow. Their emotions are sometimes extreme, but they are honest. Going through adolescence is not easy, but there is something special about that transition.
Hopefully, a good policy discussion arises out of this. I hope we ask the question: Are we doing all that we can do?
This story appears in the August 13, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.