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 Asian Test-Prep Centers Offer Parents Exactly What They Want: ‘Results’

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PostSubject: Asian Test-Prep Centers Offer Parents Exactly What They Want: ‘Results’   Fri Oct 27, 2017 1:58 am

On Main Street in Flushing, Queens’s Chinatown, the GPS Academy building announces itself with a sign printed in both English and Chinese, hanging over a crush of bubble-tea shops and souvenir street vendors. Inside, exactly 10 felt pennants adorn the back wall of the main office, bearing the titles “Harvard,” “Yale,” “Princeton” and so on. They seem to wield a hushed influence over the academy’s students, daring them to imagine one day being accepted to such universities. But it’s unlikely that they really need the reminder. They’ve known those names for a long while.

In the lobby, a lattice of makeshift certificates papers the walls. Each crimson-bordered “GPS Academy Award” boasts a name, almost always Chinese, captioned with the kind of hallmark accomplishment that just about any parent in the area would celebrate (or simply expect) from a child. A perfect SAT score, “Stuyvesant High School,” the name of an Ivy League institution. “That’s what parents are looking for,” says Lawrence Yan, the GPS founder and manager. “The results.”

GPS Academy is an educational enrichment business that specializes in preparation for standardized tests. Students range from seventh to 12th graders, most of them from immigrant Chinese families. Group test-prep classes like these have become a coming-of-age tradition in Asian immigrant communities, which nurse entire ecosystems of businesses like this one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a majority of New York City’s 411 prep centers are rooted in Queens and Brooklyn, with over a quarter of them springing up in the past four years alone, most notably in the boroughs’ Asian enclaves of Flushing and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. On the opposite coast, 861 such tutoring centers exist in California’s Orange, Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties, all heavy with Asian-American families.

At GPS, as with its competitors, one of the most popular courses focuses on New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, an entrance requirement for eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools. (LaGuardia High, a performing-arts school, has an audition system.) Less than 20 percent of eighth graders who take the exam clear the minimum score needed to get into a specialized school, including — at the most competitive end — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. A typical summer class for this test at GPS lasts three hours a day, every weekday, and can cost around $1,400. But Yan says virtually all his students get into a specialized high school. He knows this because he hands out Visa gift cards once results come out: $50 for Stuyvesant, $30 for Bronx Science, $20 for the others.

GPS also prepares students for other exams: the SAT and the ACT, Advanced Placement exams, New York Regent Examinations. Its instructors can home in on almost any potential weak spot in a college application — even extracurricular activities and personal statements can be curated with the help of one-on-one college counseling. “You know how a GPS leads you to the place you want to go?” Yan asks. “GPS Academy is basically a place where we fulfill your dreams in terms of education. So we are navigating you to the right place.”
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Irina 7 hours ago

One more thought. When our family arrived to the US in 1989, we relied on hand-me-downs for many things, including clothing. I started...
Jane Shutte 11 hours ago

As a Science graduate, I am having a hard time thinking of my school as a place of failure. Of course, back in the 60's, the only prep for...
Chris Davies 11 hours ago

As a registered cynic and someone who lived in China for 11 years it all comes down to parental selfishness. Many, if not most, Chinese...

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The GPS staff includes Ivy League alumni and full-time high school teachers; some tutors are both. Yan himself grew up in Flushing, attending the selective Da Vinci Science and Math Institute for high school. As an adult, he worked as a financial analyst until 2011, when, feeling a lack of purpose on Wall Street, he turned to the test-prep industry. “I felt like I was just part of the process,” Yan says about his former career. “But now I feel very proud when my kids get into a top school or get a very high SAT score. I see the results right away, and I feel more in control.” He floods local Chinese radio stations and newspapers with ads for GPS, but he estimates that a majority of his customers arrive through simple word of mouth. “Basically,” he says, “one person gets into Stuyvesant — all his relatives and friends ask where he went for prep.”

It was in a GPS Academy class for the city high-school test, three years ago, that Join Wang first met most of his close friends. That group, now juniors at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, regrouped again this summer for SAT classes. “It’s kind of become a joke: ‘What are you going to do in the summer?’ ‘Go to prep,’” Wang says. “We all go to prep.”

Wang’s parents came to the United States from Fujian, China. He says it’s difficult to get them to open up about their past, but he knows his mother came from an affluent family of winemakers, while his dad grew up in the countryside. They started fresh here, teaching themselves English and saving money to help family members follow; now they run a laundromat business in Elmhurst, Queens. This summer, Wang and his two younger brothers shared a room with one bunk bed, taking turns sleeping on the floor’s bamboo mat. His parents were in the other bedroom, with his sister and youngest brother. If test-prep classes were ever a financial burden for them, they never showed it, brushing off Wang’s questions, he says, telling him: “You’re just a little kid. Calm down, and leave the finances to us.”

Yan says many of his customers struggle financially but will still pay thousands if it helps ensure that their children can get into a prestigious high school, which will, presumably, lead to a prestigious college. “It’s more like a culture thing, you know?” he says. “They would rather not get expensive sneakers, but they will try to put their kids in a very expensive prep school.”

Traces of the Asian tutoring industry have emerged in the United States after each wave of immigration from countries like China and South Korea, says Pyong Gap Min, a sociology professor at Queens College in the City University of New York. They began in the 1960s, Min says, after the repeal of longstanding exclusionary immigration laws — but it was in the 1980s that cities like New York first saw a notable presence of supplemental educational centers, following a swell of migration from China, Korea and South Asia. Min considers the test-prep centers of Flushing offshoots of their origin countries’ rigorous “cram schools,” called bǔ xí bān in China and hagwon in South Korea. This rigor is seen as necessary to keep up with national test-based systems like China’s, where a single exam determines university placement. “It’s Confucian to emphasize your children’s education,” Min says. “You go to China, Korea and Taiwan, there’s after-school programs that they transplanted here.”

The preparation certainly pays off; Asian students from varying backgrounds are now a majority in New York’s most competitive public schools. Stuyvesant is three-quarters Asian, and Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech’s shares are over 60 percent. This has come with its share of controversy; a federal complaint, filed by a coalition of advocacy groups in 2012, argued that the high-stakes, single-exam admissions process has a discriminatory impact on black and Latino children (who may find fewer resources and opportunities to prepare for it), and should consider a wider set of factors, like previous grades, interviews or teacher recommendations. (The Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it would open an investigation, though the current status of that investigation is unclear. Only the New York State Legislature — not New York City itself — can change the admissions policy for the schools.)

But David Lee — a Brooklyn Technical High School class of 1978 alumnus — argues that students at the three most competitive specialized schools are not necessarily economically privileged: About 40 to 60 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Lee is a leader of Coalition Edu, a group that defends the test-based admissions policy, joining a chorus of former students who say cultural values and an exceptional work ethic have pushed Asians of all income groups to excel in the specialized high school system.

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, says such perceptions of Asian exceptionalism percolate in both liberal and conservative circles, with conservatives using Asian success as a main point in arguing against affirmative-action policies. But that shouldn’t suggest, she says, that other minorities don’t value hard work or education. She argues in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” her 2015 book with Min Zhou, that much of Asian-Americans’ educational attainment actually stems from a hyperselective immigration policy: A 2015 census report found that a majority of Chinese immigrants have college degrees, a distinction matched by fewer than one-third of Americans as a whole and only 16 percent of the population in China itself.
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