This year, fewer blacks and Latinos were offered seats in New York City’s specialized high schools compared to last year. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio is offering what he called a “strong package of reforms.” As The Department of Education seeks to increase the diversity in its specialized high schools, there is a constant debate about the test used to assess students applying to these schools. Many are concerned that the current admissions process is limiting opportunities for African American and Latino students, especially those who did not have an opportunity to attend a rigorous middle school. Others feel that the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) should stay as is, and is necessary to keep standards high.
The city’s six-pronged approach largely focuses on recruitment of high-performing middle school students through existing public and private tutoring programs. These programs, which are more popular in some communities than others, are among the reasons why Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and the other specialized high schools have a disproportionately high number of Asian and white pupils.
“This is a matter of fairness – we have to ensure that high-performing students who are black and Latino, and who come from low-income neighborhoods, have the same opportunities to enroll and thrive in these schools,” the mayor said in a statement.
The city plans to spend $15 million over the next four years on the new initiatives. They include:
“This is about equity and excellence for all of our high-performing middle school students, regardless of their zip code or background,” said Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “We’re going to increase diversity without lowering any standards; to the contrary, greater diversity will help all our students succeed.”
Many critics blame the lack of diversity on the use of a single test for admissions that’s given to eighth graders each fall. While de Blasio supported including other academic factors besides the test as a mayoral candidate, he has moved away from that approach.
“It’s a critical first step,” said Ryan Baxter, the founder and chairman of the group Promoting Access to Specialized Schools in New York City (PASSNYC). He said too many middle school students don’t know about the specialized schools, or learn too late to prepare well for the entrance exam.
The initiative complements legislative proposals to broaden the range of students who apply to some of the city’s most competitive high schools.