Neighborhood: Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
Current School: I.S. 187, Borough Park, Brooklyn
First Choice High Schools: Stuyvesant High School, Beacon High School, Edward R. Murrow High School
Admitted: Stuyvesant High School, Tribeca, Manhattan
Friday, March 4 started out like any other day for Peihua Huang, and eighth grader at the highly regarded Intermediate School 187 in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
“It was pretty normal, until we got to science,” said Huang, remembering the day last month when she received her high school admissions decision. The assistant principal walked in with a stack of letters. Huang and the 32 other students in her science class listened intently as she read off the number of students admitted to each school.
“Then she started giving them out from the back,” Huang said. “But my name was in the front.”
Finally, the moment she had been preparing for since kindergarten had arrived: Huang was admitted to her first choice, Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, the most prestigious public high school in New York City. Stuyvesant is one of the city’s nine highly competitive “specialized” schools, which are designed to serve the city’s brightest students and emphasize a particular subject area. Stuyvesant focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.
“Some people were happy,” Huang said. “Some people were crying because they didn’t get into any of the schools.” She felt nothing at first. Then the excitement set in. Her first call was to her parents, working class immigrants from China’s Guangdong province.
Huang isn’t the only one in her class heading off to Stuyvesant in the fall. She counted 15 students in her science class who also received acceptance letters to the city’s top high school. In total, about 135 of I.S. 187’s roughly 350 eighth graders were admitted to Stuyvesant. About 1,000 students in grades six through eight attend I.S. 187, and around 70% of the student body is Asian. Over half of students qualify for free lunch.
According to 2015 data, 35% of students from last year’s eighth grade class attended Stuyvesant. The remaining students attended other high-ranking and specialized high schools such as Brooklyn Technical High School and Staten Island Technical High School.
Huang still speaks Cantonese at home with her mother, who works in a jewelry store, and her father, who runs a Kung Fu school. The family lives in a two-bedroom condo in a working-class neighborhood in Dyker Heights, with Huang’s grandparents.
“Because she was doing well in school, I wasn’t worried about high school all that much,” said Huang’s mother, Minnie Huang.
Stuyvesant, like seven of the other specialized high schools in New York City, admits students based solely on their performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts is the only specialized school that does not rely on the SHSAT; instead, it requires students to complete an audition or portfolio for admission. The standardized exam consists of multiple choice questions designed to measure students’ English and math skills.
Huang started preparing for the SHSAT at the end of 7th grade. She also attended weekly tutoring at a nearby test prep center in the fourth and fifth grades to help her prepare for the state exams that would influence her admission to a top middle school, which was critical to putting her on the path to a good high school.
Huang’s mother said that she never had to pressure her daughter too much, because she was already self-motivated and interested in academics. In her spare time, Huang plays computer games, goes to the park with friends, plays the guitar, and teaches herself computer code.
She hopes to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology and become a computer programmer in the future. Huang said Stuyvesant was the logical first choice when it came to applying to high schools.
“Now, technology is getting more advanced,” she said. “Jobs in the future will have to do more with programming and computers.”
Even though Huang had a good idea of what she was looking for in a high school, she still found the process intimidating. She said her middle school guidance counselor prepared her and her classmates well for the process. Huang also relied on friends and their parents for advice and input on which schools had the best reputations.
She devoted about two hours a day for several weeks (in addition to an hour or two of regular homework) to reading the admissions book and looking up schools on the Internet. After narrowing her list down to about 25 schools, she applied to all eight specialized schools and filled in the rest of her list with other top schools in the city.
“They give us the book and we have to decide which schools we should pick,” Huang said. “But sometimes that’s a little frustrating because there are hundreds of schools, and we don’t know which one to pick. Sometimes it’s hard to start.”
Huang also had some advice for students just starting the process.
“I would tell them to relax,” she said. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, or else you’ll make it bad for yourself. Also, think about schools earlier, so you don’t have to rush at the end.”