Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Today is the Big Day (#SHSAT)

My kid is taking the New York City high school entrance exam as I write this. He's probably answering the last five or six questions on the math section. His favorite part.

For those of you living in the city with middle school-age kids, you understand why my cortisol levels have been off the chart this morning (I'm sure yours have been, too). I keep checking the time, wondering how he's doing, if he's calm or freaking out. If he thinks the test is less difficult than he thought, or if he's like, "F*ck, this is hard!" 

I have mixed feelings about the Specialized High School Admissions Test (also known as the SHSAT, or "Sshh-Zat!" - said with emphasis on the "Z," like my 13-year-old pronounces it). Ever since we started this journey it has been a source of great expectation and great anxiety. I had a good cry this morning, after Caden left for school. The day started off as any other - got the kids up, made them breakfast (ham and over-easy egg on an English muffin). Izzy usually eats first, then walks to school with daddy. Caden has breakfast after little sister leaves. He was in good spirits. His usual unaffected teenage self, checking his text messages and watching TikTok videos while munching on his egg muffin. He left the last bite untouched, said he was finished and put on his backpack. I gave him a huge bear hug and my baby was out the door. I said goodbye and watched him descend the stairs to the apartment's foyer and out the building. I shut the door and had a good cry.

I wasn't expecting to engage in a full on ugly cry. The tears and snot just flowed. I guess it was release? Releasing him to the world and releasing all the anxiety, hope, expectation and preparation that has gone into this journey - all culminating in this one single day?

This year more than 27,000 New York City eighth graders will take the high-stakes and controversial SHSAT. How you perform on this exam is the sole criteria for admission to one of the city's eight selective public high schools - Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and five others. Caden's top choice is Stuyvesant High School. Last year 22,338 students applied. 776 seats were offered. You do the math.

Many families here see the test as the golden ticket to a world-class, first-rate high school education. But with every potential opportunity comes its flip side: pinning hopes and dreams on ONE EXAM is a lot of pressure. Caden has told me about friends of his who have been prepping for the test since 4th grade. The fourth grade?! When we arrived in New York this summer, Caden pretty much jumped in at the deep end, submersing himself in everything SHSAT - going to tutoring twice a week, studying and taking half a dozen practice exams. That was four months of prep. Preparing for four years just sounds crazy. But this is New York. Everything is turned up to 15 around here.

If your kid's SHSAT results don't make the cut - or if your child opts out of the exam - there are some 700 high school programs to chose from throughout the five boroughs. Thumbing through the 2020 NYC High School Admissions Guide is like looking over the menu at Katz's Deli - so many, too many, options! We were standing in line at a high school open house last night and my first thought was, "This is so stupid!" The line was practically three blocks long, wrapped around 8th Avenue and 42nd Street. Nervous parents behind me were discussing the SHSAT and other high school options. "Are you looking into private schools, too?" one parent asked the other. "Yup. Gotta have back ups!" she said. Private high school is a feasible "back up" if you have the $24,000 a year for tuition

I think what gets me most about the way school is done here is the complete lack of diversity. Black and Latino students are grossly underrepresented at the specialized high schools. In fact, segregation has been the story of New York City's schools for 50 years. "It wasn't supposed to be this way in New York, one of the country's most diverse cities with more than 8 million people and 800 languages," producer Sweta Vohra writes in The New York Times. "And yet, it has one of the most segregated school systems in the nation." It's why the SHSAT is a controversial and anger-inducing and opinion-generating lightning rod. The mayor wants to get rid of it. Lobbying groups like the Education Equity Campaign want to keep it. White and Asian parents say dismantling the SHSAT would disproportionately hurt their kids. 

It's 1:14pm which means my son is done with the exam. He's probably eating lunch with his buddies, discussing which parts of the test were easy, hard, etc. Maybe they're not even talking about it. Moving on to more important topics: girls, Fortnite and Halloween plans.

Whatever happens now is out of my hands. That's the thing about life. You can control only so much. You have a goal, a dream, a vision. You make plans and prepare. You execute to the best of your ability. Then you wait, pray and release the rest. I told Caden last night before bed, "I'm proud of you. You're shooting for the stars, you committed to this and worked really hard. No matter what the result, you have already succeeded!"