Education Reform

A Black Student Who Regretted Her Four Years in a Selective High School

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NY Chalkbeat recounts the story of a black student who won admission to York High School in Queens, one of the most selective in New York City. Admission is based on students’ test scores on one test of mathematics and reading, offered on one day. Only those with the highest scores are admitted.

The first thing Elizabeth Yarde noticed on her first day at Queens High School for the Sciences at York College was the lack of Black students.

The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Yarde felt intense stares from other students, their looks seemingly questioning Yarde’s place at the elite high school, and she heard racial slurs being tossed around freely. At lunch, when Yarde started up a conversation with a fellow student, he remarked that he had never had a Black friend before.

“I started to slowly realize that a lot of these kids had kind of been sheltered from other races of people to the point where they didn’t really know how to be racially sensitive,” said Yarde, 17, who graduated Monday. “It seemed like kids were either automatically intimidated by me, or they immediately undermined me.”

As one of the eight specialized public high schools in the city where admissions is determined solely by the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or the SHSAT, York High School, as Yarde’s school is sometimes called, does not have a student body that comes close to representing the nation’s largest public school system. Asian American students account for more than 80% of the student body – about 480 students – while only 3% of students are Black, even though Black students make up roughly a quarter of students in New York City’s public schools.

Over the course of her freshman year, Yarde felt her mental health deteriorate. Panic attacks became regular occurrences. She often felt overwhelmed and ran to the bathroom to cry. Racist remarks from other students – such as one student’s comment that his mother would rather he be gay than date a Black girl – wore her down.

Yarde begged her mother to let her transfer to a different school, but her mother encouraged her to stay. As the youngest of 10 children, and the first to attend a specialized high school, she felt significant pressure not only to stick it out but also to perform well academically.

And she has. She is graduating with a 3.8 GPA, and she will start college in the fall at Northeastern University in Boston. A member of student government and the school’s student leadership team, Yarde discovered at York High School that she has a strong voice and deft communication skills. She aspires to be a lawyer or a marketing executive one day.

But Yarde’s academic success has come at a cost, one that she is not sure she would be willing to pay again.

“I don’t personally think it was worth it,” she said. “I don’t think that Black children should always have to face trauma in order to be stronger. The world is already very difficult as a Black child – walking down the street, going anywhere with your friends, always having to be so racially aware at such a young age. If you can have a safe place for four years, eight hours a day, five days a week, you go there.”

The nation’s most segregated school system

New York City’s public school system is the most segregated in the country. According to a recent report released by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, about 85% of Black students and about 75% of Latino students attend segregated schools in the city. Only 11% of white students and 43% of Asian American students do.

The racial divide is especially evident in the city’s specialized high schools. This year, only eight Black students were offered a seat at Stuyvesant out of 749 seats, and only one Black student got into Staten Island Technical High School. At York High School, 10 Black students were offered seats, an increase from last year’s 8.

Black and Latino students, who together make up almost 70% of the school system, received 9% of offers to specialized schools for the coming school year – a decline from 11% the year before..

Ironically, Elizabeth Yarde chose to attend Northeastern University, where black students are only 3% of the enrollment. She knows she can handle it.

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