If it was not for her curiosity, the life of Ellie (Xinrui) Zhu would have had no overlap with SHSAT, the entrance test for specialized high schools in New York City. After all, 22-year-old Zhu came to the U.S. from China after she graduated from high school there. Now, however, she has made a documentary film about the journey Asian students travel to get into specialized high schools.
Zhu graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and is pursuing her master’s degree in multimedia studies at New York University. Last summer, during an internship at CNN, Zhu’s supervising producer showed some interest in Asian students at specialized high schools. The producer told her that they had wanted to make a documentary film about these students but had given up because it was hard to find Asian families who would like to participate. “I was thinking then, it would be easier for me to interact with these families,” said Zhu.
When she went back to school, a professor who was also a producer at HBO mentioned SHSAT again, and the professor encouraged students to do films on this topic. “Their interest in this topic was inspiring to me,” said Zhu. “It means many mainstream Americans would like to know the story behind the academic success of Asian students.” Zhu said she found that many Americans thought Asian students would spend all their time studying. “But we know that’s not true. I wanted to show that to them.”
Soon after, at an education forum in Brooklyn, she met Stanley Ng, the Lower East Side representative for the Citywide Council on High Schools who is a strong opponent of specialized high school reform. Ng introduced her to the Coalition Supporting NYC Specialized High Schools. In her film, the students preparing for SHSAT are shown spending their time playing video games, participating in extracurricular activities and, on weekends, attending cram schools.
“[Most Americans] thought Asian students get there only by attending cram schools. They don’t know how much Asian families sacrifice for their children’s education,” said Zhu. This is what impressed Zhu the most during the process of making the movie: The families, she noted, are not as rich as some people may assume.
An example from the movie is that of twin brothers who are preparing for the exam. Their mother is a waitress at a restaurant and their father a delivery man. The parents work long hours. Every day when they get back home, the kids have already fallen asleep. They don’t have much time to spend with them. Still, the twins have been attending cram school since they were third graders. “Cram school is not cheap. It costs a few thousand dollars every year. But the parents never hesitated because they wanted their kids to have better lives than them,” said Zhu. The children may be too young to understand their parents’ thinking. “But I believe they see how hard their parents work. And they will understand their folks sooner or later.”
“So the secret is not studying from dawn to dusk, nor money, but the priority our culture gives to education,” said Zhu. She found that even in many of the free SHSAT preparation programs provided by nonprofit educational organizations, Asian students make up the majority of attendees. Asian students not only are better prepared for the exam, but also are more likely to take the exam. And many African American and Hispanic students are not interested in taking the exam at all.
Zhu said she once had a conversation with a non-Asian alumnus of Stuyvesant High School, which helped her understand the different emphasis placed on education in different cultures.
“The [Stuyvesant graduate] provides free SHSAT preparation programs in African-American and Latino communities. But specialized high schools are not a popular topic in these communities. Few people know about them. Some parents only learn about the existence of such schools at the high school fairs, and ask what scores are needed to get admission,” said Zhu. “But if you look at the Chinese-language newspapers, you’ll see there is so much information about specialized high schools. That’s the cultural difference.”