Neighborhood: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Middle School: MS 51 William Alexander in Park Slope
Current School: Started Brooklyn Tech in 2012. Applied in 2011
Most New York City students today would be elated to open a high school letter of acceptance into Brooklyn Tech, one of the city’s nine exclusive, specialized high schools. But when Ali Ruiz got the news she recalls feeling nothing but dread and guilt.
An eighth grader at Middle School 51 William Alexander in Park Slope back in 2011, Ruiz remembers the moment vividly because many of her fellow classmates who didn’t get into Brooklyn Tech were crying, desperate to be in her shoes.
These large, legacy high schools require a competitive state admissions exam for admission, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). William Alexander, considered a “gifted and talented” middle school in Park Slope, is known for routinely sending its students to these elite high schools.
“It was traumatizing,” said Ruiz, now 17 years old, as she nursed a Starbucks coffee and swept aside the bleached curls that were falling on her face. “I felt like I didn’t even deserve it…I wish I could’ve given it to someone who wanted to go.”
Ruiz had always dreamed of becoming an artist but her parents had other plans. Instead of applying for LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, Ruiz was advised only to apply to Brooklyn Tech and Staten Island Tech, both elites, both accepted her.
When Ali got home that day, her parents celebrated. Ruiz’s mother and father, originally from Puerto Rico but both raised in Brooklyn, had always wanted Ali to receive a high quality education and to gain experiences and opportunities they never had at her age. Charlisse Ruiz, her mother and a graduate of Hunter College, now works as a medical technologist at NYU Cancer Center while her father works as a supervisor with the city’s Department of Sanitation.
Mom and dad reveled in Ali’s now guaranteed college admissions prospects while she feigned excitement and went up to her room and pouted. Ali didn’t want to go to a math and science school. She had always considered herself destined for the visual arts and had her sights on LaGuardia, a specialized school for the performing arts.
Ali’s parents had different plans. The summer following seventh grade, Ali signed up for a Kaplan summer testing prep for the specialized high school test.
“Specialized high school was a big deal at the time and the test was also the thing everything was taking,” Ali said. Once a week, Ali would have to report to her course. She admits to skipping frequently because, “well, it was summer,” she joked.
Despite investments in free test preparation programs this year, recent data released by the Department of Education shows that only 3.6 percent of black students and 5.3 percent of Hispanic students who took the test received an offer to any of the eight schools compared to 34 percent of Asian students and 29 percent of white students.
Ali, who identifies as Latina, remembers whizzing through the reading and writing sections of the exam but struggled a bit with math. Despite the lack of numeracy confidence, she passed with flying colors and was advised to put only two schools on her list.
When the first day of school came around, Ali was a tiny 13-year-old entering the labyrinth that is Brooklyn Technical High School, the nation’s largest public high school with a student body of over 5,000.
Serving a student population that is 61 percent Asian, and 20 percent white, Brooklyn Tech is a statistical inverse of the average city school, which is often majority black and Latino. “When the few black and Latino students get together we stick together,” Ruiz said. “You’ll go into a classroom and there’s maybe one or two Latino or black students.”
Ali had begun her school year feeling isolated academically, knowing full well that math and science were neither her interest nor forte. “As soon as I started my classes I felt even more isolated since there are so many students—about 35 per class,” she said. “As an incoming freshman, it’s kind of scary.”
Met with a huge learning curve, Ruiz struggled academically and to add insult to injury, felt that teachers were not paying attention to specific students and what they needed.
“It doesn’t really measure your intellect or intelligence except on your ability to memorize,” Ruiz said.
According to Ali, her freshman year is probably her strongest on record. Her grades began to dip to a 74 average by her sophomore year. She blames the drop on her attempt to find balance and a social life. “The only way to get a good GPA at Brooklyn Tech is to devote all your time and energy, Ali said. “A 74 was just me trying to be a normal teenager.”
After freshman year, Ali’s parents saw how unhappy she was and offered to transfer her out but she would ultimately decline the offer. “I felt guilty because they had done so much to ensure that I got in,” she said.
The thing that saved Ali’s creative side was the moment she picked her media major sophomore year.
Looking back with graduation on the horizon, Ali would argue that despite academic challenges and compromises, she is most upset by the social isolation she experienced at Brooklyn Tech.
“Honestly, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of representation,” Ali said. “There were or are hardly any black or Latino students at Brooklyn Tech so I felt sort of like an outsider…”
A wise senior in high school now, Ali can see how the high school admissions process itself can be discriminatory.
“It’s a fact that students from low-income neighborhoods usually happen to be black and Latino students who don’t have resources or access to prepare for these tests,” Ali said in reference to the specialized exam.
“I wish I could have extended my resources to students who didn’t have access to them so that they could have gotten in as well or instead of me,” Ali concluded.
And yet, with multiple college acceptances to wade through, including the University of Buffalo where she’s decided to enroll, Ruiz wavers a bit when reflecting on her high school education.
“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” Ruiz said. “It built a lot of my character and it made me much more well rounded because I had no choice but to get better and math and science.”
Ali is counting the days toward graduation. She’ll likely skip prom.