Pedagogy and Inequality

Local leaders are echoing calls from elected officials for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconsider his plan to boost diversity at the City’s specialized high schools, a group of eight selective secondary schools, where students are admitted on the basis of a competitive examination. In a series of proposals, City Hall has variously called for dropping this competitive exam, or else deemphasizing it in favor of admitting students from middle schools or communities where poverty is widespread, who score near the top of their classes.

At the December 19 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), Paul Hovitz, who serves as co-chair of that panel’s Youth & Education Committee, said, “the Mayor’s move to equalize populations at our test-in schools comes on the heels of the Department of Education [DOE] refusing to build anymore of the screened schools that the majority of families in our community look for.

Paul Hovitz

“His plan to heterogenize the performance level of kids that are homogenized is a bad plan,” Mr. Hovtiz continued, “and we’re asking the Mayor to hold off on it, and instead look at supporting higher levels of instruction at the schools he feels are not being properly represented.”

When the plan was announced, in June, State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Lower Manhattan, said, “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.”

Margaret Chin

City Council member Margaret Chin (who is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, one of the specialized schools) wrote to Mayor de Blasio, saying, “I appreciate your leadership and effort to make the specialized high schools more diverse and reflective of City’s student population,” but noting 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.”

At its December 19 meeting, CB1 enacted a resolution that said, “while CB1 is in full support of diversifying our New York City specialized high schools, we do not feel… the Mayor’s existing plan is the right path to that goal,” and urging that, “the Mayor’s office keep the present specialized high school admissions model in place until an alternate and more robust plan be developed to help diversify these schools.”

This resolution comes on the heels of several recent developments in the controversy. In October, DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza claimed that the de Blasio administration could unilaterally eliminate the use of the competitive exam at five of the eight specialized high schools, because only three of the schools are specifically named in the  1971 state law that created the admissions process.

On December 3, several hundred parents packed a meeting of the Community Education Council for District 2 (which covers Lower Manhattan) to condemn the de Blasio plan.
For local families, the stakes are especially high: District 2 represents just eight percent of all eight graders in the New York City public school system, but accounts for 13 percent of admissions to the eight elite public high schools.
During a meeting that lasted three and a half hours, dozens of parents rose to voice bitter criticism of the plan. Not one parent spoke in support of it. The members of the Community Education Council then debated a resolution calling upon the Mayor, “to delay continued consideration [of the plan] until a formalized process for community input that fully engages school teachers, administrators, students and families from all NYC School Districts and the Specialized High Schools is established, well-publicized and implemented.” But this resolution did not pass, because the ten members of the panel (out of 13) who were present at the December 3 meeting deadlocked, with five voting in support, and five opposed.

Ten days later, a group of supporters for educational opportunity among Asian-Americans filed suit in federal court, arguing that the changes proposed by the de Blasio administration would cause fewer Asian-American students to be admitted to the special high schools, and thus violate their rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Mayor argues that his proposed changes would boost enrollment for black and Hispanic students, who currently represent fewer than ten percent of all enrollees at the specialized high 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, welcomed 13 black students and 28 Latino applicants in its 928-seat freshman class, which entered the school last September. These numbers represent a slight jump from the same figures in 2016, when Stuyvesant enrolled 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 last 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 all the students enrolled at 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.
Matthew Fenton

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