Kagan’s High School in Turmoil Over Diversity and Leadership
By SHARON OTTERMAN
With one of its alumna, Elena Kagan, poised for confirmation as a justice on the Supreme Court, it should be a triumphant season for Hunter College High School, a New York City public school for the intellectually gifted.
But instead, the school is in turmoil, with much of the faculty in an uproar over the resignation of a popular principal, the fourth in five years. In her departure speech to teachers in late June, the principal cited several reasons for her decision, including tensions over a lack of diversity at the school, which had been the subject of a controversial graduation address the day before by one of the school’s few African-American students.
Hours after the principal’s address, a committee of Hunter High teachers that included Ms. Kagan’s brother, Irving, read aloud a notice of no confidence to the president of Hunter College, who ultimately oversees the high school, one of the most prestigious public schools in the nation.
The events fanned a long-standing disagreement between much of the high school faculty and the administration of Hunter College over the use of a single, teacher-written test for admission to the school, which has grades 7 through 12. Faculty committees have recommended broadening the admissions process to include criteria like interviews, observations or portfolios of student work, in part to increase minority enrollment and blunt the impact of the professional test preparation undertaken by many prospective students.
Eliminating the test, essentially unchanged for decades, is not on the table, said John Rose, the dean for diversity at Hunter College, in part because it is an integral part of a school with a stellar college admissions profile — about 25 percent of graduates are admitted to Ivy League schools — and outstanding alumni like Ms. Kagan and Ruby Dee.
... As has happened at other prestigious city high schools with only a test for admission, the black and Hispanic population at Hunter has fallen in recent years. In 1995, the entering seventh-grade class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, according to state data. This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students classified as multiracial. The school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.
When Justin Hudson, 18, stood up in his purple robes to address his class in the auditorium of Hunter College, those numbers were on his mind. He opened by praising the school and explaining how appreciative he was to have made it to that moment.
Then he shocked his audience. “More than anything else, I feel guilty,” Mr. Hudson, who is black and Hispanic, told his 183 fellow graduates. “I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.”
They had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.” Beneficiaries of advantages, they were disproportionately from middle-class Asian and white neighborhoods known for good schools and the prevalence of tutoring.
“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that.”
The entire faculty gave him a standing ovation, as did about half the students. ...
In a sense, Mr. Hudson’s message came from the faculty. To ease the pressure on its students, the school does not name a valedictorian; instead, it invites seniors to write graduation speeches and a faculty committee selects one to be read. This year, it chose Mr. Hudson’s, to his surprise.
The day after the speech, Dr. Coppola, a Harvard-trained urban education expert in her first job as a principal, told the staff on June 25 that she was leaving, making it clear that she did not want to. She cited a “culture of fear” from above and “untenable working conditions,” several faculty members present said.
Anyway, on and on the story goes.
What else is new? Whaddaya whaddaya?
The main thing that has changed since 1972 is the scale. Scale matters.