The Fine Line Between ‘Discerning’ and ‘Discriminating’

Elected officials representing Lower Manhattan are casting a skeptical eye on proposed changes to the admissions process for New York City’s specialized high schools, a group of eight selective secondary schools, where students are admitted on the basis of a competitive examination.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed scrapping this exam in favor of a new system that would evaluate applicants based on rank within their middle school, and their scores on New York State standardized tests. A second, related proposal from City Hall would reserve one-fifth of the seats at these schools for pupils from families living below the poverty line (and in communities where poverty is widespread), who had scored well on the exam — but not well enough to be admitted to one of the specialized high schools. These students would be invited to sit for a remedial summer program before ninth grade, and then admitted based on their performance during that session.

The Mayor argues that these changes would boost enrollment for black and Hispanic students, who currently represent fewer than ten percent of all enrollees at these prestigious schools, although the same groups comprise more than two-thirds of students at all New York City public high schools.

In a local case in point, Stuyvesant High School, which is headquartered in Battery Park City, recently offered places to 13 black students and 28 Latino applicants in its 928-seat freshman class, which will enter the school next September. These numbers represent a slight jump from the same figures in 2016, when Stuyvesant admitted nine black and 14 Hispanic applicants, but hold the overall total to approximately four percent of Stuyvesant’s incoming class. For the group of eight selective high schools as a whole, black and Hispanic students were offered approximately 10 percent of the seats in next September’s freshman class.

Asians are the ethnic group that dominates admission to the specialized high schools, making up two-thirds of the offers for Stuyvesant, and more than half for the group of eight selective schools as a whole.

While the breakdown along racial lines is stark, the economic picture is more mixed. Within Stuyvesant High School, 41.8 percent of students come from families living below the poverty line, while the same figure for the New York city school system as a whole is 74 percent. As in many other comparative analyses of opportunity, geography appears to be destiny. A 2015 evaluation by the City’s Independent Budget Office found that applicants residing in neighborhoods where the median income was less than $33,000 per year contributed just 11 percent of the student body at the eight specialized high schools, while those living in districts where the median income was greater than $81,000 annually represented 22 percent of students at such schools.

Anecdotally, Battery Park City (one of the highest income neighborhoods anywhere in the five boroughs) sends approximately a dozen students to Stuyvesant High School each year, and several more to the remaining specialized high schools. Indeed, half of students admitted to the eight selective high schools come from just 21 high-performing middles schools (such as those in Lower Manhattan), out of some 600 public middle schools City-wide.

The Mayor’s plan to drop the competitive examination for admission to Stuyvesant High School and the other seven schools will need the cooperation of the State legislature, which enacted the requirements in 1971.

State Assembly member Yuh Line Niou

But State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Lower Manhattan, said in response to the Mayor’s proposal, “Achieving diversity in all of our schools, including our specialized high schools, should always be a priority, as having a diverse student body also enriches one’s education. However, I am against the City’s plan regarding the Specialized High School Admissions Test.”

She continued, “diversity issues in our education system are systemic, going back as early as pre-school and elementary levels. By the time we face segregation in our high schools, it is a symptom of our system’s failings. Tackling the diversity issue in our education system requires us to address the causes of segregation at every level, starting in our early education programs and pre-kindergarten, to our elementary, middle schools, and high schools. We must level the playing field by ensuring that families and students have equal access to resources like funding, administration, and parental involvement.”

Ms. Niou added, “the Department of Education [DOE] undertook this project years ago, yet there seems to be a community-engagement aspect missing. I am concerned that the DOE created this plan with minimal community involvement. When it comes to our schools and our students, it is absolutely critical for families to have ample opportunities to have their voices heard. Regrettably, the City’s abrupt announcement and desire to push this bill through the State legislature is unreasonable in terms of reviewing community feedback.”

“In addition,” she concluded, “I am deeply concerned about the language used around this issue, which has been focusing on how Asian-American students are overrepresented in our City’s specialized high schools. Asian-Americans are also minorities; there are over 180,000 Asian-American students in the New York City education system, and 58.4 percent of them live close to or below the poverty line. It is unfair and wrong to pit minorities against one another when the goal is to improve educational outcomes and opportunities for all New Yorkers.”

On June 6, the Assembly’s Education Committee “reported out” a bill sponsored by Charles Barron, a former City Council member (and now State Assembly member) from Brooklyn, acting on behalf of the de Blasio administration. This bill aims to begin the process of implementing the Mayor’s proposal. The Educations Committee’s maneuver clears the path for the bill to be debated and voted on by the Assembly as a whole.

City Council member
 Margaret Chin

City Council member Margaret Chin responded, “I am disappointed in the vote by the Assembly’s Education Committee on legislation that would make fundamental changes to our city’s specialized high schools without discussion or consultation with the communities that would be most affected. It is time that State and local officials, as well as the New York City Department of Education, hear the concerns expressed by parents who strive to give their children the tools to succeed — both inside and outside the classroom. That is why I am demanding that the Mayor meet with us, work with us, and together create a solution that works for all of our students.”

On the same day, Ms. Chin (who is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, one of the specialized schools), wrote to Mayor de Blasio, requesting, “an official process to address concerns that many Asian-American families have with the proposal to amend the Specialized High School admissions process.”

She continued, “I appreciate your leadership and effort to make the Specialized High Schools more diverse and reflective of City’s student population,” but noted that, “I have serious concerns about the lack of dialogue between your office, the New York City Department of Education, and the students, families, and communities that will be disproportionately impacted by this policy.”

She further observed that, “Asian-Americans have a unique relationship with Specialized High Schools. For many families, particularly low-income immigrant families, the Specialized High Schools are the only pathway to a world-class education. Without consultation with community leaders and elected representatives of these communities, the Administration was unable to hear from these diverse voices and the community’s unique perspectives. More importantly, the Administration denied itself of an opportunity to have a nuanced conversation with a community that would be disproportionately impacted by this policy change.”

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