Customers ordering Chinese food at State Garden might not have noticed the little boy listening in. The national College Board eventually did. So did Yale.
The little boy was Wen Jiang, a new arrival to New Haven from a Chinese fishing village. Jiang was picking up English while hanging out at his aunt’s State Street eatery.
Fast forward nine years. Jiang, finishing up at New Haven’s Hill Regional Career High School, took eight Advanced Placement courses. Other standout students take a handful of APs. Then he succeeded in scoring well on all eight AP exams.
This week the public schools cited Jiang’s feat to illustrate a larger trend: The city’s schools continue to rack up increasing numbers of high scores on AP exams. Jiang won a national AP Scholar Award, given by the College Board to students who score 4 or 5 (the top) on eight or more exams. New Haven Public Schools landed on the AP District Honor Roll for upping the number of low-income students taking AP classes and succeeding in the exams. (More about those numbers later in this story.)
When asked, Jiang, now a freshman at Yale, rattled off the eight AP tests he took and his scores in each. He asked not to have those scores appear in the Independent; he didn’t want to appear boastful.
Why did he take all those demanding tests?
“I like the challenge,” he said in an interview on Yale’s Cross Campus between classes. (“Should I prepare” for the interview? he asked when first contacted; click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch excerpts of the interview.)
“I want to do the most learning I can while in high school. That was the main motive. I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting time,” Jiang said.
“Another part is I want to feel good about myself. I want to know that I can do it.”
With a nudge, he consented to having his score on the English language AP exam revealed. He scored a 5 out of 5.
Which “really surprised” Jiang. That score was his biggest achievement.
Growing up in the Chinese village of Tantou, Jiang spoke Fuzhounese (a dialect) and Mandarin.
Jiang spoke no English when he came to New Haven at the age of 9 with his father. Jiang’s aunt, Sue Chen, invited Jiang’s father to come work for her at State Garden Chinese restaurant on State Street.
“She took me in with her. I was able to go to East Rock Magnet School,” he recalled.
And her restaurant became Jiang’s second home. Not to mention informal language lab.
“I didn’t know enough English at first to actually help out at the front desk. I remembered my aunt was at the wok. She was making lo mein or something. And I keep bugging her about, like, “How do you say this? How do you say that? Is this the right way to say that?’
“I also was in the front where the sitting area is. I would listen to certain conversations between the customers.”
Jiang also camped out for hours at a time in the restaurant’s “worker apartment.” The TV was there. “Adults were also always busying themselves with the restaurant work,” so he watched cartoons. Three shows in particular stick out in his mind as helping him pick up English: “Clifford The Big Red Dog, Scooby-Doo and Yu-Gi-Oh!.”
Years later, when it came time to tackle the English language AP test, Scooby-Doo and lo mein weren’t going to get Jiang where he needed to go. He found other guides. His English teacher at Career, Carol Petuch, was one; she was “really warm” in general and helped him improve his writing. Online, Jiang found old AP tests posted. He took them and studied them. “My best companion actually was the AP website,” he said. “That helped me so much because I was able to do the practices before the exams. The great thing is that they were actual exams.” He also wrote extra essays in advance of the test for practice.
Jiang’s aunt had since sold State Garden. His dad, Yicai Jiang, has moved on to take a waiter job at Blessings II Go. Jiang is studying economics at Yale. His goal: To become a consultant for not-for-profit groups.
New Haven’s public school district, meanwhile, took its own AP victory lap this week. Besides Jiang’s national honor, they announced that the district had landed a space on the “AP District Honor Roll” for “increasing access to Advanced Placement courses and increasing the number of students earning scores of 3 or higher on AP Exams.” Several schools, like Career and Wilbur Cross, have made a push in recent years to bring more low-income students onto the AP track. As a result, the city was one of only two lower-income districts in the state—defined by having more than 30 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches—and one of only two with more than 30 percent minority enrollment to make that national honor roll.
Last year 617 New Haven public high school students took 1,068 AP exams, according to a district press release; 251 of them “earned qualifying scores of 3 or higher on 405 exams. These are all increases over last years’ enrollment of 585 students, 1,037 AP exams, and 305 qualifying scores.”
The AP track holds benefits beyond challenging students to learn more during their high school years. Most colleges give students who score 3 or higher on AP tests credit for those courses, meaning students can save tuition money; or else advance to more difficult courses.
Jiang’s eye-popping eight test aces did not make the history books, though. He had a hard act to follow: Dean Chen, a 2008 Wilbur Cross graduate who received a 3 or higher on 13 AP tests in his junior and senior years. Chen, who went on to attend Duke University and then become a software engineer, provided the Independent Thursday with his breakdown:
US History 5
World History 3
US Government 5
Comp Sci 4
Music Theory 3