Gotta Watch: Inside New York’s High-Stakes Summer School — Where Half the Students Lose
By Heather Martino
I t’s the first week of August and Staten Island Technical High School is bustling with prospective students, as hopefuls use their summer vacations to compete for one of the few remaining spots in the Class of 2019.
“I feel like I’m doing good in my classes, but I’m still nervous that they’re not going to take all of us,” says 14-year-old Anthony Colossi, who is taking part in the school’s cutthroat Summer Discovery program.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Giordano Lynch Ferreraz is commuting an hour-and-a-half each day from Harlem. He said he would be devastated if he doesn’t get in.
Both boys have a reason to be worried. The school will have room in the fall for just 22 of the 42 students selected for the five-week program.
They are among some of the brightest kids in the city, and they’ve given up their summer in a last-ditch effort to try to get a seat in one of the most coveted high schools in New York. Staten Island Tech was ranked sixth in the country by Newsweek’s Top High Schools in 2014, as well as sixth in New York City by U.S. News & World Report, beating out Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech in 2015.
The program is only available to students who meet certain socio-economic guidelines, and whose scores just missed the cutoff for admission. It’s organized through the city Department of Education, but Staten Island Tech structures the program according to its own school requirements.
That means students get an introduction to Russian — the only language offered at Tech — as well as history and the school’s STEM curriculum. They are also taught study skills and offered guidance counseling by staff, who evaluate students over the course of the program.
“It’s the survival of the fittest — or the survival of the smartest”
This isn’t the first summer that Colossi is working towards this goal. The rising freshman has been preparing since he was in the sixth grade for the Specialized High School Admittance Test (SHSAT), which is the sole determining factor for admission to some of the city’s most elite public high schools.
Of the approximately 28,000 students that took the SHSAT in 2014, just 5,000 were offered seats in eight of the specialized high schools that require the exam.
The exam is administered each October to mostly eighth-grade students. Prepping for it in recent years has become akin to cramming for the SAT, with test prep companies popping up all over the city to meet the growing demand.
“Unless you’ve been tutored, you wouldn’t really be successful on the exam,” said AP macroeconomics teacher Victoria Finkelshteyn.
Finkelshteyn represents Staten Island Tech at various open houses around the city, where she speaks to the parents of prospective students.
“It’s upsetting to have to tell the parents of the kids who’ve worked so hard the last three years to maintain their averages, to have perfect attendance and all of these participation grades…we don’t look at any of it,” she said.
Since the SHSAT is the only factor that Tech considers for admission, students with a history of academic achievement may be out of luck if they don’t perform on exam day. “The parents‘ faces are like, one bad day and that’s it,” Finkelshteyn said, “the kid is out.”
Finkelshteyn said she believes there are flaws in the way the test is administered. Namely, that it’s given in October.
“You’re expected to cover things on the exam that are deep into your eighth-grade curriculum,” she said, “so technically it’s content that you shouldn’t have to know yet.” This makes the need for test prep almost essential, Finkelshteyn reiterated, “but not everybody can afford the tutoring.”
Colossi worked with a test prep company called Academic Advantage to prepare for the two- and-a-half-hour exam. He estimates that he spent about 884 hours studying for the SHSAT.
“I would go the whole year through once a week, preparing and studying,” he said, “and I would cram right before the tests.” Colossi added, “I would try my hardest.”
After his initial scores didn’t cut it, he applied for the Summer Discovery program, and earned the chance to spend five weeks across July and August at Tech to prove to administrators that he has what it takes to succeed at the school.
If he doesn’t get in, Colossi said he would understand, but he would be “very depressed at first.”
“They’ll probably tell me why I didn’t make it in,” he said. “If I didn’t qualify — I didn’t have something that they were looking for.”
This is the second year that Staten Island Tech is running the Summer Discovery program, and it’s the first year where more students qualified for the program than they have seats available for the incoming freshman class.
The fact that only half will get in has created a “Hunger Games”-like atmosphere among students. “This competitive element is in and the kids are feeling it,” said Finkelshteyn. “They’re not looking at each other as potential friends and neighbors.”
Ferreraz believes giving up his summer is worth it for this second chance: “It’s so difficult to get in because in the end it’s the survival of the fittest — or the survival of the smartest I guess.”
*Disclosure: Reporter Heather Martino graduated from Staten Island Tech before the entrance exam was required.
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