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African-American Valedictorian Challenges Elite N.Y. High School on Diversity

NEW YORK – Justin Hudson has become somewhat of a heroic figure at Hunter College High School—a New York City public school founded in 1869 for intellectually gifted students.

This past June, Hudson, 18, used his graduation speech to challenge the high school’s admission procedures, which he says puts too much stock on a single, teacher-written exam for admission into the selective school that caters to students in grades 7-12. 

Only elementary school students in New York City who score in the top 10 percent on the state English and math exams are invited by Hunter to take the admissions exam. In the past, individual elementary schools were chiefly responsible for getting the word out about when the exam would be administered. 

That’s how Hudson, a native of Queens, found out about the school. His elementary school guidance counselor encouraged him to apply after Hudson performed well on the exam administered to him in the fifth grade.

But many faculty and students at Hunter, including Hudson, have long expressed frustration at the school’s admissions process, arguing that not enough outreach is done by school officials to encourage African-Americans and Latinos to apply for admission at the elite school that boasts a distinguished group of alumni, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and actress Ruby Dee.

“I feel guilt because I don’t deserve any of this and neither do any of you,” Hudson told his fellow classmates of 183 students at their graduation ceremony last June. “We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were 11-year-olds or 4-year-olds.”

Hudson’s speech, which called for a new and bold approach to recruiting and retaining a diverse student population, sent shockwaves across the school and the city and forced a discussion about diversity at Hunter College High School, which falls under the jurisdiction of Hunter College, a four-year institution that is part of City College of New York (CUNY)—one of the largest public university systems in the country.

Unlike New York City’s public school system where African-Americans and Hispanics comprise 70 percent of the population, only 3 percent of the students at Hunter College High School are Black and 1 percent Hispanic. According to school officials, Asians make up 47 percent of the school’s demographic, and Whites total 41 percent. The number of minority teachers is equally dismal.

Hudson, who is heading to Columbia University this fall as a freshman, says that those numbers are unacceptable. He also argues that more should be done to attract lower economic class students to the Upper East Side school.  

“There is definitely a skewed economic spectrum,” he says. “There are a lot of upper-middle-class students. The school does not have the feel of a private school, but lower class students are not represented.”

When Hudson set out to deliver his remarks, he says that he was not looking to disparage the school but to bring attention to what he calls a flawed admissions process that prevents other minority students from obtaining the high-quality education that he received at Hunter.

“My speech was a personal impression of what I thought,” Hudson says. “It was not said out of anger or hatred toward the school but out of a sense that not enough people were experiencing what I experienced.”

In the days leading up to Hudson’s speech, the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Coppola, resigned from her post, citing, among other issues, tensions with the college administration about the issue of student diversity at the school. And in the days following Hudson’s speech, officials at the school agreed to step up their recruiting efforts by inviting all fifth-graders in New York City who scored in the top percentile on both the state English and math tests to take the Hunter exam.

Hudson says that he’s not sure what, if any, role he played in sparking the new changes.

“I don’t know if I would give myself that much credit,” he says. “But if my speech had something to do with changing the way that outreach is done, I’m very happy about it.”

Hudson, who was a member of the African American Cultural Center at Hunter, will enter Columbia University as an undecided major, though he is toying with the idea of majoring in history. Whatever academic path he chooses, Hudson says that he will remain committed, however, to social justice causes and envisions himself becoming politically engaged at the Ivy League institution. 

“Social justice is kind of something that has always been important to me,” Hudson says. “It’s something I would like to strive toward and work for in the future.”

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