If you were told that there was a school that could provide your child with the best education possible and it was free and open to the public, in New York City, would you believe it?

You should, because for Manhattan residents, Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School are a godsend if their child can get in. They’re independent, they’re free and they’re challenging, while not beholden to the Department of Education’s testing-oriented curriculum.

Over the years, the schools did a masterful job of having student bodies that represented the city they called home, but about half a decade ago, some administrators at the schools started to notice the increasingly homogenous makeup of the kids. While there were many reasons to explain the situation, the schools decided simply to rededicate their efforts to diversity. Back on course, Hunter College Schools’ Director of Admissions and Outreach Kyla Kupferstein Torres spoke with the AmNews about the schools’ commitment to diversity and the type of education the schools provide.

The Head Start [programs] that we work with are all over the city,” said Torres when asked about how the schools get the word out to predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Manhattan. “We work with the Children Aid’s Society and the Education Alliance. We’re working through nonprofits that are active in serving these kinds of families and seeing children from the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Washington Heights and Inwood [YMCA] come to this school.”

Hunter elementary and high school alums are represented at some of the nation’s top colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And just like those schools, Hunter’s schools require good scores on tests to get in, but for the elementary school and high school (which goes from grades seven through 12 instead of nine through 12), the tests are different.

The elementary school tests go through two rounds in order to whittle down the number of kids that the school would invite to attend—25 boys and 25 girls out of over 2,000 applicants. The first round requires that the parent take the child to an approved tester who is trained to give an intellectual reasoning assessment using a modified Stanford-Binet V exam created specifically for Hunter College Elementary School admissions standards. Admissions officials then choose who goes on to the next round based off of scores given by the tester.

The second round requires children to meet in groups of nine, where trained consultants observe their behaviors in individual and group tasks and their interaction with teachers and peers in order to simulate a preschool classroom atmosphere.

With the high school, seventh grade is the only entry year, so unlike the admission process for the specialized public high schools, you can’t retake the exam a year later if you didn’t make the required score the first time. And unlike the process for entry in the elementary school, the test is open to all New York City residents and not just Manhattanites. Torres told the AmNews that the high school’s entrance exam requires excellent fifth-grade statewide test scores just to have a seat at the table. The website states that they’re looking for a 343 math score and a 346 English/language arts score on the statewide tests.

When checking the admissions page on the school’s website, you’ll find a description of the school that’s written by Torres herself. “HCES’s mission is to nurture social and emotional development by encouraging students to be caring, compassionate, and responsible citizens,” it states. “We prepare our students to be lifelong learners, leaders and thinkers.” The school hopes to increase a child’s critical thinking skills and accelerate their learning whenever possible.

According to the most recent information provided by InsideSchools.org, Hunter College Elementary School currently educates 333 children, with 53 percent of them being white, 14 percent Asian, 7 percent Black and 3 percent Hispanic. Torres told the AmNews that the numbers were much better than what she inherited five years ago and provided a theory as to why the student body started to look less and less like the Manhattan she knew.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, Manhattan was a different place,” said Torres. “And there wasn’t a test prep industry.” With the rise of the test prep industry that a select few can afford and the increase of white residents in Manhattan, it made sense that the demographics of the school would change.

“The elementary school has historically been diverse,” said Torres.

One set of parents benefitting from the renewed commitment to diversity is Olivier Sylvain and Olati Johnson. The couple has a son that’s currently a first-grader at Hunter and has seen the benefits of his education there. Sylvain told the AmNews how he first heard about Hunter College schools.

“I’m a New Yorker, but I also went to Williams College, and I had a bunch of classmates who were from there,” said Sylvain. “And I had friends growing up who got hip to it. You knew about the reputation.”

Johnson recalled a similar experience about first hearing of Hunter, but she also added that word of mouth from other parents increased her knowledge as well.

“I heard about Hunter again as a parent because parents were talking about the school,” Johnson said. “You start to hear about school when your child is 3 or 4, and you start thinking about kindergarten and talking about the admissions process and what that‘s like. I got a sense of what people thought of the education program and the chance for children to be in a challenging atmosphere.”

While family dynamics may have played a role in applying their son for Hunter (their daughter goes to the private Dalton School and didn’t want her to big personality to overshadow her brother), economics were also important.

“We were open to just staying at the Dalton with even that reservation,” said Sylvain. “We decided to apply to Hunter because of its reputation and because it’s free. That, to us, means a lot. Dalton is not free.”

Having a child attend a school that’s challenging, intense and diverse meant a lot to Johnson. She told the AmNews she wouldn’t be doing right by her son if she taught him certain kinds of values, but sent him a place that represented the opposite.

“To me, it’s very important because these are schools where your child is getting attention, and it shouldn’t be that only certain children should benefit from that,” said Johnson. “I think that it’s not a fair and open process if it’s not open in a real way. It’s also important to me when I think about the values I want to raise my kids with about building community. I want them to go to a place that actually includes people.”

“It’s absolutely true that it’s important to see that the city’s in the school and the demographic is as important as the people in the street,” added Sylvain.

Torres told the AmNews that it’s not only important for parents to find the school that’s the most challenging, but also to find the one that’s right for your child and their needs.

“I think at any age—whether they’re [in] kindergarten or high school, at any age—the most important thing is finding a match,” said Torres. “Can your child really swim in a larger, competitive environment? Do they thrive better in a single-sex environment more than coed? A school is only great if it’s a great fit for your child.”

According to Johnson and Sylvain, Hunter is the right fit for their child—and it might be the right fit for other children of color as well.

“I’m often surprised at how little attention Hunter is given by communities of color, and I know that Kyla is trying hard to change that,” said Sylvain. “To make sure that families in Harlem and other communities know about this school that my wife and I were lucky enough to know about.”

You can find out information about how to apply for the Hunter College Elementary School 2014 class by going to www.hunterschools.org/es/admissions. There are lowered/waived application fees depending on your economic status.