By Tai Abrams

New York City’s students and educators are going through unprecedented times. In the course of only one week, 1.1 million public school students had to switch to a completely remote learning environment. Add in the unique challenges many underprivileged families face with lack of access to the Internet and technology, and we know many of our most vulnerable students are at risk of falling even further behind. 

But, amidst all of the hardship and challenges, we cannot take our eye off the prize for the sake of our students’ futures. As the founder of AdmissionSquad, a non-profit education organization that specializes in getting high-achieving middle schoolers into top NYC high schools, top colleges and exposed to leading careers, I’m worried about the anxiety my students are feeling. 

Fortunately, there is a bipartisan effort underway currently in the City Council to pursue action on stemming these long-term effects. I’m supporting legislation in the City Council that would require universal test prep for every kid. Council Members Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy alongside Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced a bill that would finally mandate the DOE come up with a plan to make sure every public-school student has access to the tutoring they need for success. The bill also calls to remove other barriers, such as the longstanding practice of holding the SHSAT on the weekends, which privileges kids whose parents can transport them to the site. By providing the test on a weekday and mandating kids take it unless they opt-out, all students will have the opportunity. Now is the time to start thinking about how to bring systemic change that will increase access for all students through this crisis and beyond.

Because of the transition to remote learning and the use of new technologies, many high achieving students are not doing as well as they were while in the classroom. The Wall Street Journal just reported widespread concern amongst NYC teachers for students who will fall even further behind due to what is now known as the ‘Covid slide’ and the need for a more hands-on approach to support these students. I personally hear often how grades are dropping or assignments are not being delivered on time as a result of confusion with the online tools being used. Students that were receiving straight A’s a few weeks ago are now seeing lower grades due to no fault of their own and this undoubtedly hurts their morale. 

Uneasiness in this moment of uncertainty is to be expected. But, what most worries me is the missed opportunity we will experience if we do not harness these crucial months by motivating our students to stay laser focused on their future. 

That’s why this summer I am dedicated to launching a completely remote SHSAT Boot Camp that will deliver the highest quality test prep, motivational support and admissions resources our pupils need most in this time. Our tutors and students will cover material and complete test questions day in and day out through the summer months, just as in all other years. We’ll even still run our speaker series, enlisting alumnae and current students from the Specialized High Schools, current Harvard students and successful working professionals to motivate our youth because we know now is the time to inspire our students. For an all-inclusive and reduced fee of $500 that would cover 4 months of the program and through several allotted full-scholarships to those in need, families can sign up for our program on our website or by emailing [email protected]

It’s important to keep in mind that the SHSAT is the sole criteria used to determine admission into the Specialized High Schools and is protected under state law. These schools include Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School and five others and they are among the most highly regarded high schools in the entire United States. Students master be able to master 8th and some 9th grade topics by October of their 8th grade year to perform exceptionally well on the 2020 SHSAT. So, time is of the essence.

I know firsthand that test prep works. As a Bronx Science graduate, I worked day in and out to make my dreams come true. And, with my students at AdmissionSquad, I’ve seen how test prep, combined with motivational support can propel our young people to achievement. This year alone, AdmissionSquad had a 22% success rate of helping students of color succeed in earning a place at a specialized high school. Compared to the citywide rate of 3.8%, you see that comprehensive tutoring and adequate preparation does yield significant results. Additionally, only 10 black students gained admission into Stuyvesant High School, out of almost 20,000 black eight graders and 2 of those students came from our program! Results were similar for other Specialized High Schools. 

During this time when everyone is doing everything they can just to get by, I understand that it is hard to keep a focus on systemic educational changes. So many people have so little these days and we are all adapting as we go along. But, just because things are different does not mean we can abandon our longstanding goals. In my fifteen years of working with underprivileged youth, I know that the talent is present in all communities, but we must do everything we can to cultivate that talent and provide opportunities for students to flourish. 

Most importantly, my message to our city’s students is: don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. There are a lot of great providers out there in your community who can help you realize your dreams and I know that with the right preparation and confidence, the achievements you will reach in this admissions cycle will be all the more meaningful because they will be despite the challenges you faced. 

Tai Abrams is the founder of AdmissionSquad and the best-selling author of “Who Am I? An A-Z Career Guide for Teens.”