Neighborhood: Far Rockaway
High School: Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology
On New Year’s Eve in Times Square, Valerie Cruz clutched a cup of hot cocoa and a slice of pizza, waiting in the freezing cold with the crowds for the crystal ball to begin its descent. The 15-year-old had landed with her mother in New York City from her native Guatemala just two days before. She shivered in a thin sweatshirt more appropriate for a tropical winter.
After the holidays, the high-achieving student knew she would start ninth grade at the Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology in Far Rockaway. But for the time being, she felt like she was watching her favorite movie, “Enchanted,” come to life.
Valerie was not a typical new immigrant from Central America. She arrived fluent in English, having gone to an elite private school with strong academics. Although her family was relatively well-off in El Salvador, the political climate was becoming tumultuous and Valerie’s mother wanted to leave for safety in the United States.
Valerie likes the Queens school where one-quarter of its 100 students are Central American immigrants like she is. She excelled at her first Regents exams in English and math. During her English Language Learner tests, she recalls the test proctors whispering about her — only for her to turn around and greet them in English.
But she has always harbored greater ambitions to attend the city’s top high school, which she learned through her peers was Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, one of nine exclusive schools that requires a high score on a highly rigorous exam, the Special High School Admissions Test.
“I like challenges,” she said with a smile. Valerie had no idea that the test requires intense preparation. The schools’ populations tend to be disproportionately white and Asian, with very few black and Latino students.
However, the basic fact of geography eventually determined Valerie’s school choice. Even if she were admitted to Stuyvesant, her mother would probably not have allowed her to make the long trip everyday, arriving home past dark, having to walk through high-violence neighborhoods from the subway. The roundtrip commute from her home in Far Rockaway to the elite school is over two hours.
Stuyvesant has a 95 percent graduation rate, compared to QIRT’s 55 percent. Additionally, 75 percent of Stuyvesant graduates go on to four-year colleges, while QIRT’s college entrance numbers are just 28 percent. Nevertheless, Valerie is confident she can do well. QIRT has two tracks in engineering and computer science designed to prepare students for a new breed of technical careers. These Career and Technical Education programs include CISCO certifications in fields like system maintenance and management.
Valerie is part of the school’s model United Nations, an academic competition where students learn about government and democracy. She has accrued class credits at SUNY, and was part of a climate science program sponsored by the New York Times. The school has a few AP classes as well, including those in U.S. History and Spanish.
Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa has known Valerie from her first days at QIRT. She says the teenager is an excellent student who completed her Regents requirements well ahead of schedule.
After graduation, Valerie’s goal is to attend Columbia University, with a scholarship. She’d also like to study abroad somewhere far away from Far Rockaway. However, Valerie knows that she’ll have to get a job to help pay for college, and to help with rent on the apartment she shares with her mother and sister.
She smiled through braces as she said, “It’s just a reality I have to accept.”