Is Your School “Specialized” or Just Racist?

Aisha Baiocchi and AnnaBelle Medina

July 29th, 2020

When we first applied to the High School of American Studies, we didn’t think much of race. It originally attracted us because of its specialization in history and small school environment. It didn’t occur to us that a small specialized school really meant a small, predominantly white school.


For Aisha, specialized just meant good. She had moved to the city only a few years before, and gone to a “specialized” middle school only because it seemed like the “good” thing to do for an academically focused student like herself. She had been surrounded by white students all three years and struggled with it but chalked it up to middle school stupidity and her choice to go to a STEM focused school instead of a humanities one, which would surely be filled with more socially aware students. She thought that HSAS would be different, largely because it was high school combined with the fact that she was constantly told that “it would get better.” “Specialized” didn’t register as segregated, lonely, or even at times scary, all of which it turned out to be.


When we walked, on the first day of our Freshman year, it felt nothing like the open house we had been to months before. We had been led around the tiny school by students of color and taught that we would be entering a school that is “elite, without being elitist.” Because of this, we assumed that our high school experience would be the same.


For AnnaBelle, she went her whole life surrounded by students of color. In middle school, there were many students who looked like her, had similar backgrounds to her, and had first generation parents like her. She subconsciously thought that she would always go to schools that followed this pattern, and always feel comforted by the ability to look around and see someone who is similar to her.  Her parents always told her that because of her intelligence, she would go far in life, and therefore experience a lot racial discomfort because in the world much of the success belonged to people who didn’t resemble her. HSAS brought in the sudden and harsh reality that her parents spoke of, and even though she knew it was coming, she never could’ve prepared herself.


When we started talking more openly about it, and met other students of color who had experienced the same thing, we realized this was a systematic problem. We are victims of a racist school system, one specifically designed to keep us out. In 1971, Hecht-Calandra was passed to counter the racial integration that was happening in our city’s public schools. The law created the SHSAT, the biggest barrier for Black and Brown students trying to enter NYC’s “elite” schools. Since then, the schools have transformed, yet Black and Brown students are still the ones struggling to get in: while Black and Latino students make up 68% of the NYC high school population, only 9% were offered a seat in a SHSAT school this year. Our school specifically is also segregated by income, with only 20% of our students being considered low-income as opposed to the 75% which makes up NYC’s public school population. All this history and these statistics is just to say that our experiences were not an anomaly; they are the reality for the Black and Brown students in our public school system. Our schools feel unwelcoming and like they’re not meant for us -- because they aren’t.


To know when to speak up and what was worth calling out was challenging, but as we grew as students and as people, we learned that our voices matter, especially in spaces where they are the minority. We started to individually build communities of color and gradually ask for change, but during the peak of quarantine, when the systematic inequalities became glaringly apparent, we began to work together to create a bigger solution: The Outsiders Guide.


The Outsiders Guide is a website compiling advice and information we needed, but didn’t receive. There are the practical things we struggled with, like an explanation of the college admissions process and a list of internships and programs we missed the chance to apply for, but also the emotional and social support we needed in the form of blog posts and success stories from other students like us; a student-made website to fill the gaps the system created is a small solution to a massive issue. What we really need is change from the top, an elimination of discriminatory screening procedures and a fundamental re-thinking of what it means for a school to be “specialized.”


Check out Highly Indy's profile of The Outsiders Guide, and head over to outsidersguide.net to see the site.


Cover image features Aisha and AnaBelle.

©2017 by The Highly Indy Project

highlyindy@gmail.com, New York City

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