A War to Enter Hunter High

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On a brisk Sunday morning in December, it was impossible to walk down Flushing’s Main Street without having flyers thrust at you every block or so. Some promoted massage parlors, others were for travel agencies. But the most common flyer ads were for a “cram school,” called E-Math. There, for about $800, sixth-grade students were promised several weeks of coaching to boost their scores on entrance exams for New York’s elite public schools.

Ms. Annette taught the students how to write a nail-it essay on the entrance exam. Timmy Hung-Ming Shen/Global City NYC

In a cram school classroom at E-Math in December,  students learn how to write a nail-it essay on the Hunter entrance exam. Timmy Hung-Ming Shen/Global City NYC

“Enter Hunter ‘Genius’ High School” said a flyer headline. Next to it was an arrow pointing to the ultimate goal: “Enter Harvard.”

Hunter College High School is just one of several elite public high schools in New York City with fierce competition for admission. But most – like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech – don’t test students until eighth grade.

Hunter is unique: it bases entrance solely on an entrance exam taken in January of a student’s sixth-grade year. And for many seeking a Hunter slot, cram school is regarded as essential; of the 1,800 or so applicants each year, only about 10 percent get in.

Asian students dominate Hunter’s admissions. In the 2014-15 school year, for example, about 45 percent of Hunter’s approximately 1200 students were of Asian descent.

So it’s probably not surprising that in the weeks before the January exam, flyers were blanketing Chinatown, urging sixth graders and their parents to sign up for cram schools.

“Intellectual maturity is the key to a good essay,” said the writing instructor in one early December cram session at E-Math. She introduced herself only as Ms. Annette, and said she used to teach at Manhattan College.

“Read, read, and read,” Ms. Annette advised the several dozen students – along with their parents, seated in the back of the classroom.

Feng Cheng, who immigrated to the U.S. from China four years ago, was one of the parents squeezed into kid-size seats in the back of the E-Math classroom. He watched his 11-year-old son, Tianhua, taking notes on the lecture. But Cheng himself understood none of it; he speaks only enough English to get by at his job, in a Chinese takeout restaurant near John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Cheng said he works nearly 15 hours a day, six days a week. On his day off, he takes his son to cram school, hoping to give him a better future. Cheng describes his own life as “just to survive.”

“I read the advertisement of the cram school in the local Chinese newspaper,” said Cheng. “It seemed that they do their job well.” Cheng’s son attends classes at E-Math five days a week, including weekends, for extra training in math and English.

Here’s how difficult it is to get admitted to Hunter College High School: Just to have the right to take the 6th grade exam, a student has to score at least 346 out of 413 on the Grade 5 New York State English language arts test, and 358 out of 415 on the mathematics test. The 6th grade exam – the one students were cramming for in December – is a three-hour test that includes an essay and 80 multiple-choice questions.

Lih Chang, another father sitting in the back of the E-Math classroom, said he enrolled his daughter in the cram course because “They have strong experience coaching the test takers.”

Chang and his daughter are now waiting for the test result that will be released in March. “Even if my daughter doesn’t get in Hunter High at the end of the day, this is still a good preparation for her future tests for specialized high school,” said Chang. “She now ranks high in her class at the cram school, and I’ll let her continue studying here.”

Indeed, for parents who send their kids to cram schools, it’s a battle for both of the generations. Feng Cheng expects his son to break the family cycle. “Education is important,” he said. “All I do is to ensure my son has better opportunities than I did.”

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