NYC has the country’s most segregated schools; will the city’s plan to change that make its best schools worse?

NEW YORK — New York City is the most diverse city in the country, if not the world, according to a variety of measures.  However, when it comes to the city's public school system, it is a very different story.

Two-thirds of all students in New York City public schools are Latino or black, according to the New York City Department of Education's statistics.  They also show that overall, about one-third of students are Asian or white.

By contrast, at the city's public schools with gifted and talented programs, three out of every four students are white or Asian, far over-representing those ethnic group's overall student population.

Having the best-resourced and most selective schools reflect the general population of the city is an important issue to many parents who spoke with PIX11 News about the subject.

"Everything could be improved upon," said Jaime Vacca-Hoefner, the white mother of a sixth grader who hopes to attend some of the city's most selective high schools.

Dyra Arnold Blackstock's sixth grader shares the same aspirations, but their family, which is a family of color, Blackstock said, also supports better ethnic representation among the city's best schools.  "They should reflect the population.  Definitely," she said.

The schools chancellor acknowledged the importance of the issue.

"There's a lot of people interested in this," Chancellor Richard Carranza told PIX11 News in an interview.

He's also made diversifying the schools the premier aspect of his tenure, which is now in its eleventh month.

A key part of the diversification program that Carranza and Mayor Bill De Blasio have devised is to have the city's specialized high schools—among the most elite, and most segregated, schools of their kind in the country—have student populations that better reflect the ethnic makeup of the city's school system overall.

The city has nine specialized high schools.  One of them, LaGuardia, is a performing arts institution, and requires an audition and strong academic grades from students hoping to gain admission.

The other eight -- Bronx Science, Brooklyn Latin, Brooklyn Tech, the High School for American Studies, the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, Queens High School for Sciences, Staten Island Tech, Stuyvesant—have only one requirement for admission:  a certain score on an admissions test, called the Specialized High School Admission Test, or SHSAT.

Each of the eight schools has a different minimum score on the test every year, but consistently, Stuyvesant has the highest minimum score.

Last year, only 10 percent of black or Latino students got high enough scores to gain admission to the specialized high schools

At Stuyvesant last year, only 10 black students gained admission to an entering class of 902 students, essentially a one percent admissions rate, determined solely by SHSAT score.

"There's no research that shows that it's either valid or reliable as an instrument to identify talent," said Carranza about the SHSAT.  "It's just a hard test."

In place of the SHSAT, the chancellor and the mayor created a plan that would phase out, over the course of three years, the century-old practice of testing into the specialized high schools.

In its place, admission would be granted to the top seven percent of students from every middle school, citywide, based on students' grades and statewide test scores.

The leader of the city's largest Asian advocacy group, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, or CACAGNY, said that her organization's thousands of members disapprove of the city's proposed change.

"[With] the seven percent solution," said Wai Wah Chin, CACAGNY's president, "you're taking kids from schools that may not produce any qualified kids, but every school has a top seven percent."

More than half of all students at the specialized high schools are Asian, even though they make up 16 percent of the overall student population citywide.

Chin said that she and her organization support diversity, but that there are ways to achieve it without dropping the testing process.

"Have better education from the early ages" across the school system, she said.

Education experts have also called for the city to take bolder steps citywide in order to improve diversity.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, is particularly critical of the way the DOE and the mayor are handling desegregating the specialized high schools.

"Big talk, little action," is how Bloomfield described the city's plan.  He said that at five of the eight specialized schools, the city could have changed admissions procedures long ago.  "The time for action really has passed," Bloomfield said.

He faults the mayor for insisting that change to admissions procedures requires approval from the state legislature.

In fact, when PIX11 News asked Mayor De Blasio at a recent news conference to comment about his plan to diversify the schools (he infamously very rarely uses the word "segregation" to describe their situation), the mayor responded, "We know it's going to be a major topic in Albany."

"There'll be ample opportunity," he said, "for parents to weigh in, including with their senators and assembly members."

Prof. Bloomfield weighed in, in an interview, with blazing criticism.

"It's been five years of the De Blasio administration," he said.  "People know how to do this work across the country.  People have been desegregating schools."

Also weighing in now are some parents.

The mothers and fathers of sixth graders, like some mentioned earlier in this article, spoke with PIX11 News while they dropped off their children at citywide testing for admission to Hunter College's secondary school.

It's also highly selective, and gives admission based solely on one test.  Only students with certain scores on statewide aptitude tests even qualify to take the Hunter admissions test.

Of the 2,500 applicants, only seven percent, or 175 students, are granted admission.

The remaining 2,325 students' families tend, after not gaining admission to Hunter, to focus on getting in to the eight specialized high schools.

Those schools -- like Hunter, by the way—serve some of the lowest percentages of families of color in the country.

Despite that fact, what some families of color in line at the Hunter admission test said about the notion of scrapping Hunter's test or the SHSAT, may come as a surprise to some people.

"I don't know how fair that is," said Izetta Scotland.

Her concern was matched by some other parents of color. They said they wanted to ensure that their children weren't viewed as being any less deserving of admission than anyone else, and that having the same admission test administered to a broad range of applicants could be one way to make sure that happened.  

"I don't believe in dumbing down all the schools to such a degree that there's no differentiation," said Yaw Debrah, the father of a Hunter test taker.

Comments like that underscore that a key challenge, should the De Blasio / Carranza diversity plan be implemented at specialized high schools.

The administration will have to convince most families—including those of color—that the changes will not reduce the strenuousness and sophistication of the elite schools. 

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