On a chilly October weekend, about 30,000 eighth graders waited in line with their parents for what could be the most important day of their lives. On those two mornings, students took the Specialized High School Standardized Admissions Test (SHSAT), the sole determinant of whether they would enroll in a specialized high school next fall; only 20 percent of them would make the cut.
The nine schools, considered the “crown jewels” of the public school system (including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech), are, according to many parents, the ticket to top colleges, a good job and presumably a prosperous life. So a lot is presumed to be riding on the test, especially for the children of immigrants who likely haven’t had all the advantages of those with American-born parents.
One of the students in line that weekend was Ari Ayzidor, from a Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn. Together with his twin sister and mother, they were one of eight families featured in the new documentary, “Tested,” and the only Jewish one. In the film, which premiered Nov. 15 at the DOC NYC festival, director Curtis Chin poses the question of whether New York City’s high school admissions system offers equal opportunity to members of all races and classes. Further, he portrays the deep anxieties surrounding the test — the months, even years, students spend prepping for it, and the months they wait in anticipation to find out which high schools will have them.
For the family, the timing of the test resulted in a double whammy of anxiety — it coincided with Ari’s preparations for his bar mitzvah: different rites of passage, both of which are high pressure and nerve wracking.
Guiding Ari through the process — trying to have him both ace the test and also stay true to his Jewishness, the latter a relatively new prospect for the immigrant family — is his mother, Inna Fershteyn. A self-described “Jewish Tiger Mom,” Fershteyn describes how hard she pushes her American-born children so they will have the opportunities she didn’t have. “I don’t have a choice … if not they’ll be failures,” she says in the film.
In a Jewish Week interview, Fershteyn mentioned that she and her husband had considered sending their children to Jewish day school, but in the end decided against it. “I went to every yeshiva in Brooklyn, and my main concern was tuition and the availability of a rigorous education. It seemed that at some of the schools the secular education was on the back burner,” she said.
Both of Fershteyn’s children were accepted into the public school system’s Gifted Learners of Bilingual Education program, or GLOBE, for gifted and talented elementary school students who speak Russian as a first language. GLOBE teaches these children to read and write in Russian. “They learned the language I speak and that their grandparents speak,” Fershteyn said. Her children attended Sunday Hebrew school and studied Judaism privately at home.
When asked about what it was like to plan for high school admissions and for a bar mitzvah at the same time, Fershteyn said, “very bad.”
“My son grew up very fast and we realized he didn’t have a suit to wear for the bar mitzvah,” she said. Fershteyn said her son went to private SHSAT tutoring beginning four months before the test, for four hours a day, four days a week. “Poor kid didn’t have half an hour free to try on suits.” Fershteyn described bringing Ari into stores for only 15 minutes at a time. Meanwhile, her daughter Peri was looking at art schools and the date of the bar mitzvah was the same day as her audition.
Fershteyn, an attorney, said she was influenced by Amy Chua’s 2011 “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which describes Chua’s experience raising Asian children and her formula for what Asian parents do to make their kids successful. Fershteyn said, “Jewish moms are always close to their kids and hover over them. … I’m doing all the same things Asian moms are doing, with Jewish guilt. The Jewish mom has a lot of compassion and feelings, a yiddishe mom.” Fershteyn’s parents live with her in a two-family house in Bensonhurst, and have family dinners every Shabbos.
“For me it’s important that our kids are artistic, cultured, and well-read,” she said. “All the things that are embedded in Jewish tradition: reading and writing in two languages. It’s time to give my kids the same kind of attention I received from my mom.”
Fershteyn described her constant struggle of deciding how hard to push her children. “Am I doing too much for them or am I not doing enough? Am I pushing them too hard? Do they love me?” She said, “They think I’m too involved, but too bad for them. I’ll do whatever I can for them. Later on they can say thank you or you did too much. But they can’t say I didn’t do enough.”
This kind of tension is at the heart of “Tested,” which depicts the diversity of students that take the test every year, and their unique narratives and struggles. A recurring theme is students coming from certain districts feeling “locked,” stuck in their poor school districts with limited opportunity for growth.
A black student in the film says she wants to take the test because, “I don’t want to be an average black female; I want to be different.” One black mother says, “I told my son he’s born with two strikes against him; you don’t want to be a stupid black male.”
Chin also addresses the racism Asian-Americans face in the process. While Asian-Americans make up a majority of those who go to specialized high schools, the challenges they face are not always acknowledged. They represent one of the poorest groups in the city, yet many of them send their children to preparatory programs for the SHSAT, some spending up to one-fifth of their incomes on test prep.
“Tested,” which joins a long line of recent school reform documentaries — most notably Vicki Abeles’ 2009 “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” — comes as both the city and state are grappling with the issue of fairness when it comes to the SHSAT. Currently, the film reports, students of color get only 5 percent of the seats in specialized high schools, even though they make up 70 percent of the city’s public school system. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been looking into ways to increase diversity at the top schools (the mayor wants a broader set of admissions criteria). And in March, two controversial bills were introduced in the State Assembly and Senate to change the specialized high schools admissions criteria from being solely test-based to broader-based, and including grades, an application and other factors typical of other competitive city schools like Townsend Harris High School in Queens. (Critics argue that such an approach would compromise a true meritocracy.)
An alum of one of the specialized schools, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, put the push for fairness and the high stakes of the test into sharp relief: “It’s the most important for those who come the least prepared,” he told The Jewish Week.
Every year, many Jewish students are among those who take the test, including those coming from Jewish private schools. This year, Kinneret Day School in the Bronx, which goes through eighth grade, boasts getting 75 percent of its students into specialized high schools. While some Jewish schools like Kinneret endorse their students’ SHSAT process, other Jewish day schools encourage their students to stay in the yeshiva system.
Yet, at a time of rising day school tuition and a sharp increase in Jewish poverty in the city, the specialized high schools may become an increasingly attractive option for many Jewish students.
When Ari finished the 2 ½-hour SHSAT, he trekked the 10 blocks from the testing center back to the family’s Bensonhurst home. It had been a long journey for him, but a longer one for Fershteyn, who came to New York from the former Soviet Union with her family in 1991. Each member of the family had $200 and two suitcases. "My husband [an IT director] and I came from nothing and both work so hard,” she said.
In the end, Ari got an offer from one of the specialized schools, Staten Island Technical High School. Peri, a talented artist, decided not to take the SHSAT but rather, pursue art. She was accepted to the art program and the honors society at Murrow High School in Brooklyn.
At the end of the grueling process, Fershteyn was philosophical. “The important thing isn’t to get into the best school in the city; the important thing is to pick the right school for your child,” she told The Jewish Week. “They needed different types of challenges.”
And the Jewish part of their education?
They found a suit that fit Ari, who had his bar mitzvah at Bensonhurst's Congregation Sons of Israel, the same shul as Fershteyn's brother, the first Russian Jew to have the rite of passage there.
“Right after the test,we went to Israel," Fershteyn said, where the family marked their son's bar mitzvah at the Kotel.
At the end of the film, in a scene from his bar mitzvah, Ari Ayzidor, who had been tested in multiple ways, is seen putting a yarmulke on his head.
This story was corrected on Dec. 4, 2015 to reflect the fact that only Ari was in line for the test, not both twins as the story originally said.