Beacon High School Is Half White. That’s Why Students Walked Out.
Naia Timmons, a junior from Harlem, stood surrounded by classmates in the middle of the street outside Beacon High School as hail began to fall.
She shouted into a bullhorn: “I continue to recognize the privilege I had of escaping the system that many of my friends could not.” Naia identifies as black and white.
Her classmates chanted “End Jim Crow” and “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white.”
Roughly 300 students walked out of Beacon on Monday to protest its high-stakes admissions process, which they said has exacerbated segregation in the nation’s largest school system.
The protest at Beacon, one of New York City’s most selective public schools, illustrates the widening scope of the push for school integration. It has shifted away from the narrow issue of how few black and Hispanic students are admitted to the city’s eight specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant.
Beacon’s student population is about half white, a striking anomaly in a public school system that is nearly 70 percent black and Hispanic. Beacon is not a specialized high school — it has no admissions test — but its highly competitive admissions process requires students to assemble a portfolio of middle school work, admissions essays and high standardized test scores and grades. It is one of the most selective schools in New York: Last year, there were over 5,800 applications for 360 ninth-grade seats.
Beacon has a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students than Stuyvesant — about 32 percent compared to 4 percent at the specialized school — but also a higher percentage of white students, fewer Asian students and a lower percentage of students living in poverty. The school’s parent-teacher organization raised over $685,000 for the school last year, according to data released on Monday.
Earlier this fall, thousands of parents lined up outside Beacon for hours in the rain on a Tuesday afternoon, just to get a glimpse inside the school. The application deadline for the city’s public high schools is this Friday.
After Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify schools failed this summer in the State Legislature — which controls admissions to the specialized schools — attention began to move to admissions policies in the high-profile schools that Mr. de Blasio actually oversees. Mr. de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, attended Beacon.
The high school, in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, is now at the center of a push for large-scale desegregation that Mr. de Blasio’s administration has not endorsed.
Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza has promised, with sweeping rhetoric, to desegregate schools, but he has not yet released any major integration policies of his own during his 18 months on the job.
“Our schools are stronger when they reflect the diversity of our city, and we’re taking a look at our admissions processes,” said Katie O’Hanlon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
New York relies on screened admissions policies like Beacon’s more than any other city in the country.
A panel commissioned by Mr. de Blasio to study desegregation policies recommended that the city not open any new screened high schools and eliminate most academic screens for middle school admissions.
But some families support screens for high schools in particular, and have argued that students who demonstrate academic excellence in middle school deserve to attend the city’s highest-performing high schools.
Many of the students who gathered on Monday said they realized how much help they received during the high school admissions process only once they got to Beacon and learned that other students did not have access to private tutors, parents who edited admissions essays or schools with enough guidance counselors to successfully shepherd students through the complex system.
“The abundance of privilege in our school is so universal that it usually goes unquestioned and unnoticed,” said Toby Paperno, a junior who is white and lives in Brooklyn.
A number of other white students echoed that message in comments that drew cheers from the many black and Hispanic students who walked out of school.
Carmen Lopez Villamil, a junior who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said the focus on Beacon was intentional and meaningful.
“Beacon is really important because if students within Beacon are saying that the system is not working, this means that even the ones who are benefiting are not having it, that this is not working for anyone,” she said.
Carmen, who is Hispanic and white, said she had spoken with classmates who were uncomfortable with the idea that they were at Beacon not only because of their intellect or talent but also because of their privilege.
“You have privilege. It’s not your fault, it’s the system’s fault. But we have to work together to change that system,” Carmen said she tells her peers.
Sadie Lee, an Asian-American Beacon sophomore who lives in Brooklyn, said she had benefited from the segregated system by getting help from her parents and her high-performing middle school during the application process.
But Sadie also said that she sometimes felt isolated at the school, which was about 9 percent Asian last year. She had exclusively white teachers last year. Sometimes people at the school confused her with another Asian-American girl in one of her classes, she said. Sometimes she was asked where she was from and whether she spoke Chinese.
“Racism hides itself behind our progressive facade,” Sadie said during Monday’s protest. “The fight does not end when we walk back into that building,” she added.
The 30-minute walkout at Beacon was part of a series of protests organized by Teens Take Charge, a student-led pro-integration group that has been staging demonstrations outside public schools for the past few weeks. Monday’s walkout was the largest of those actions so far.
Over the summer, the group organized a large protest in which hundreds of students separated themselves by race on the steps of the Department of Education headquarters in Manhattan. They held a banner that read: “de Blasio’s school system.”
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