Editor's Note: The following article has been corrected. Two of Stanley Ng's children attend, or attended, Brooklyn Technical High School while one attends Stuyvesant High School. Denis Ni is a junior at Stuyvesant.
Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park is known as Brooklyn’s Chinatown. On a recent Saturday afternoon, people were out buying groceries from the Asian markets. But it felt more like school dismissal time on a weekday because suddenly, at around 1 o’clock, the sidewalks were filled with children and parents carrying book bags.
Jack Deng carried two large book bags for his young children, Kevin and Karie. In limited English, he said his son and daughter had just come from a tutoring school. Karie, who’s in first grade, said they go every weekend and she didn't seem to mind.
"I like to learn and get tests," she said cheerfully.
Test prep is very popular among the Chinese families in Sunset Park, even for kids this young, and it appears to be paying off. An analysis by WNYC found more than 300 students from three zip codes in the vicinity got into the city's specialized high schools last year. Those three zip codes include parts of Sunset Park, Borough Park and Dyker Heights. They were among the 20 zip codes with the most acceptances to the elite high schools.
Yet, the average incomes in those three zip codes low are enough for a family of four to qualify for free lunch (they range from about $35,000-$40,000 a year). That’s striking because most of the other admissions to the elite schools came from middle to upper class neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Fresh Meadows.
A Cultural Factor
There's a long tradition of test preparation in Asia, where several countries use national tests that determine whether they can advance in school and where they will work. China was using imperial exams more than 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty.
Stanley Ng, a Chinese-American parent leader and member of the Citywide Council for High Schools, said many Asian immigrants enroll their children in tutoring in order to stay one step ahead of their peers. He said the pressure is especially great in District 20, which includes Sunset Park, because it has several selective middle schools.
"In order to to get into the junior high you have to do well in fourth grade," he explained. "So you need the test scores as high as possible in fourth grade. So that’s why we start in second and third grade."
The reliance on tutoring seems to contribute to the high proportion of Asian students who get into the specialized high schools. More than half of the 14,400 students enrolled in the city's eight specialized high schools last year were Asian – even though Asians make up just 14 percent of the city’s public school students.
Ng, who was born in Manhattan and lives in Dyker Heights, enrolled his three daughters in tutoring classes starting in elementary school. The oldest went to and the youngest attends Brooklyn Tech while the middle child goes to Stuyvesant. He was able to afford tutoring on his salary as a computer programmer. But Ng said even the lowest paid immigrants scrape up enough money for tutoring because those high schools are seen as the ticket to a better life. He demonstrated this point over lunch in a Chinese restaurant on Eighth Avenue.
"Look at the parents," he said, pointing to some employees behind the counter. "See how hard they’re working? You think they want the same for the kids?"
To see if Ng's supposition was right, we approached a woman who was cutting a slab of pork. A friend of Ng's helped us translate. She told us the woman did send her son and daughter to weekend classes starting in fourth grade.
"It was very, very hard. It was a struggle for her to pay for it," said the translator, a Brooklyn woman named Mei who asked that we just use her first name.
The woman behind the counter, who said her name is Ying, told Mei that she used to work in a factory. She wanted her son to go to Brooklyn Tech, but he didn’t do well enough on the test.
"She said she was very disappointed," our translator continued. "Even the son was actually physically crying over it. It was so upsetting cause he missed it by two points and the whole family wanted him to go."
Ying said he wound up going to Edward R. Murrow High School instead.
A Big Business
Tutoring appears to be a big industry around Sunset Park. There are several programs around Eighth Avenue. Signs posted in Chinese advertise the different tests they can prepare students to take: OLSAT (for Gifted and Talented programs), SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) and the SAT's. One school has photos inside showing the smiling faces of all the students who were accepted last year at specialized high schools.
"I would say, in this area, probably 95 out of 100 Chinese students attend one of these programs one way or another," said
Barnabas Chan, associate director of the Horizons tutoring program.
Chan is a graduate of Brooklyn Tech who grew up in Bensonhurst. Twenty years ago, Chan’s family sent him to Flushing for tutoring classes because there weren’t as many Asians in Brooklyn. But today there are lots of these programs. Horizons enrolls about 250 kids a year, he said, half of whom are studying for the specialized high schools test.
"Pretty much all of these kids come from Bensonhurst and Sunset Park," said Chan, who began offering classes for the SHSAT seven years ago. "Most of these kids are working class to middle class families. I would say most of them their parents, they don’t speak English."
Chan’s program rents space from a Catholic school off Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, on the borders of Dyker Heights and Borough Park. Classes for the specialized high school test start in sixth grade. Kids come on weekends and during the summer to review English and math problems, with about ten kids to a class.
On a Saturday morning, we see a few white and Hispanic faces. But most students are Asian. Chan estimates 70 to 75 percent of his students get into the specialized high schools. When the high school admissions are announced each year, usually in February, he said it's "not a happy day" for those who don't get into the elite schools.
"They’re not in the best of moods," he said. "It is certainly disappointing. But we try to tell the kids there are other paths to success, not just these brand name schools."
One Low-Income Family's Investment
One of Chan's success stories is 15-year-old Denis Ni, a junior at Stuyvesant High School. He and his younger brothers, Vincent and Lawrence, started taking classes at Horizons when they were in second grade.
At the family's small apartment in Dyker Heights, Denis shows off the trophies he and his brothers won for getting top scores at Chan's tutoring program. There are about 20 trophies filling a shelf in the Ni family's living room, including four especially tall ones for first place.
"Oh yeah, I remember that one," said Denis, as he lifted a first place trophy with an eagle on each side. "Lawrence had trouble carrying that one."
His mother, Ai Qin Liao Ni, giggled with pride at all the shiny awards. Denis credits the tutoring with helping him ace the specialized high schools test. Only those in the very top percentile can get into Stuyvesant.
"Mr. Chan’s place teaches more advanced stuff than, like, what the grade level is supposed to be," he explained.
Hi mother said it cost $5000 a year for all three boys to go to weekend and summer classes. It was no small expense. She and her husband work in the garment industry and said they make just $26,000 a year, combined. Speaking in her native Taishan dialect, while her son translated, she described how they came up with the money.
"Basically, she just said she worked every day," said Denis. "I’m pretty sure it was every day... and just saved up the money to bring us to tutoring."
The Nis live in small a 2-family house they bought and share with relatives who live downstairs. They moved to New York about 20 years ago from Canton Province. Neither of the parents finished high school. But they learned quickly, from other immigrants, about the specialized high schools and the local tutoring programs.
Thirteen-year-old Vincent is waiting to see if he’ll get into one of those schools this month. The shy eighth grader, who attends PS/IS 180, said he thinks he did well on the test thanks to all the studying. But he was nervous on the day we visited, about two weeks before students would learn about high school admissions.
"I feel that I need to get into Stuy now since Denis got into Stuy," he said. "I want to just be like him and go to school with him."
Vincent’s mom said she thinks all of her sons can get into Stuvesant if they work hard enough. I asked her where she wants her boys to go to college. Speaking in Taishan, one word jumped out in English.
"Harvard," she said, adding that she heard it's a very good school.
Christine Streich and Richard Yeh contributed reporting to this piece as well as the first part in the series.