The Spectrum

Education Politics

How to Diversify NYC’s Elite Schools

By Rainier Harris

Spectrum staff

At Manhattan’s elite Stuyvesant High School, only 10 out of the 766 admitted students in the 2020-21 freshman class were Black.  At Staten Island Technical, another of New York City’s eight competitive, specialized high schools, this year, only a single black student — in a freshman class of roughly 1,320 — was offered admission.

The lack of Black and Hispanic students admitted into New York City’s best public schools is more disturbing, education experts contend, when compared to the racial makeup of students in New York City’s public schools: 70 percent are Black or Hispanic. In light of they, they want to overhaul admissions policies of these elite public high schools.

“The school system isn’t fair,” Karleny Ramos, a 12th grader at the High School for Teaching and Professions, told NYU’s The Spectrum. She has been a member of Teens Take Charge since March 2020.

Teens Take Charge started in 2017 as a platform for the five boroughs’ high school students to share their experiences and to encourage elected officials to address systemic problems of the public schools, including segregation and exclusion at the elite schools.

Teens Take Charge on June 11 started petitioning to repeal Hecht-Calandra Act which governs school admissions policies. Their petition had amassed over 7,000 signatures by late July.

Currently, admission to the eight specialized high schools is determined solely by a student’s performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, also known as the SHSAT.  If a student achieves or surpasses a certain cutoff score, which varies from high school to high school, then, they are admitted.

Defenders of the test say it is colorblind. Others however, argue that the test is discriminates against black and brown students who are enrolled in schools too underfunded too adequately prepare them for SHSAT.

Teens Take Charge, andothers, want to replaced that test with an enrollment equity plan.  Among their proposals, their plan calls for supporting 8th grade students in the application process, and offering seats in the specialized high schools to the top 7 percent of every middle school, based on a combination of class rank and state test performances.

State Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a primary co-sponsor of the bill to repeal Hecht-Calandra, said at a press conference last week that “Black lives should matter in situations just like this, where inequities and inequalities are perpetuated in our public-school systems …  a public-school system, which we know is segregated.”

“As much as the DOE [Department of Education] states that education is for everybody,” student activist Ramos said, “having [Hecht-Calandra] shows that it’s not for everybody.”

Advocates say that Hecht-Calandra has prepetuated the racial segregation of specialized high schools where white and Asian students are overrepresented and Black and Latino students are underrepresented.

Chief among the defenders of Hecht-Calandra are Asian Americans.

Groups such as the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York and the Asian American Coalition for Education, as well as Asian American parents, sued Mayor Bill De Blasio and School Chancellor Richard Carranza in 2018 for what they call “deliberate discrimination” against Asian American students.

“Many [students in Specialized High Schools] are immigrants who rely on the objectivity guaranteed by Hecht-Calandra to compete on a level playing field for educational opportunities,” CACAGNY wrote in a June 2018 press release. They continued, “Despite his denials, Bill de Blasio’s proposals target Asian American kids and callously toss out their hard-won achievements.”

Last year a plan backed by Mayor Bill De Blasio, and introduced in the Assembly, to change the admissions criteria of New York City’s top specialized high schools endured months of public debate and fierce criticism from Asian parents, amon others. It never made it to the floor for a legislative vote.  State Senator John Liu, chair of the Senate’s New York City education committee, called De Blasio’s plan “racist” because he claimed that De Blasio excluded Asian American families from its development.

The issue of addressing the specialized high school admission policy is not going away. Several of the New York City mayoral candidates have put forth some of their own plans. New York State Senator Robert Jackson said at that press conference last week, “We need to make sure that we make this an issue and ask all of the candidates that are running for mayor in next year’s election, whether or not they support the repeal of the Hecht-Calandra Act.”