By Jay Sobhraj
As city and state leaders prepare to take up the challenge of evaluating and possibly changing the admissions process for New York City’s specialized high schools, it is essential they consider the great strides already being made from the ground up to expand access to these excellent institutions.
There is no question that parents, community leaders, education officials and local leaders ought to be searching for creative and effective ways to bring more children into pipeline that feeds these schools.
As has been noted frequently in recent weeks, black and Latino students make up roughly 10 percent of the student body at schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, even as they comprise about 70 percent of the general New York City public school population.
Rather than exacerbate divisions or impose quotas, what we ought to be focused on is providing better opportunities for all students.
Many critics of the current system point to the fact that more well-to-do families pay thousands of dollars per year on test prep classes that give students the upper hand in passing the Specialized High School Admittance Test, the key to entrance for these schools.
This is indeed a problem. Here in Queens, the effects have been clear: Bright and capable students whose families struggled economically have historically been at a disadvantage, unable to benefit from classes geared specifically to help them pass the test.
Ten years ago, the Jay and Sylvia Sobhraj Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of families in Jamaica and across the borough, partnered with the America Sevashram Sangha temple to create a free prep class open to any student who wanted to take the SHSAT.
The program then expanded to include SAT prep for college-bound high school juniors and seniors as well.
Since its inception in 2008, over 180 SHSAT students received free test prep through the program, the vast majority of them black and Latino. Of those students, an astonishing 40 percent passed the SHSAT. The other 60 percent of participants leveraged this to gain entry to honors programs in their high schools.
Some 600 students took the SAT prep classes we also provide at no cost to them, with many of them winning acceptance to top colleges, including Cornell University, the University of Southern California, Fordham University, NYU, Georgetown University and many others.
By opening the classes to students free of charge, such non-profits and other educational programs can better level the playing field and prove that in New York City, zip code does not have to mean destiny and the impacts of racial segregation can begin to be addressed by proactively recruiting students from all backgrounds to participate.
The Sobhraj Foundation, founded by immigrants from Guyana, also hired top-notch teachers who expanded the classes beyond just test prep to better develop reading and writing skills, which serve students not just in gaining admission to specialized schools but help them thrive once they are there.
As Aristole said: “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” Hard work by teachers, parents, students, administrators, and non-profit volunteers has resulted in success across the board.
If the city and state need to look to a model of success moving forward, one can be found here in southeast Queens. By going into the community and offering to equip students with the tools they need, regardless of income or background, we have shown that we can achieve a more equitable educational landscape while maintaining high standards and providing greater access to the best education possible.
Jay Sobhraj is a principal at Zara Realty, a Jamaica, Queens-based management company with more 2.6 million square feet of residential property in Jamaica and the surrounding communities.