By Jada Gordon
The following article is featured in the October 2019 edition of The Campus.
In New York City, there are eight specialized high schools with the most decorated scholastic reputations. Although they are elite and have 100% percent graduation rates, they lack diversity both in economic background and race. While these elite schools should be seen as an opportunity for higher education, inclusive to all, these institutions have rather become increasingly unattainable for a large population of the often economically disadvantaged immigrant/refugee and minority students.
According to an article in The New York Times, one of these specialized high schools and also one of the city’s most elite, Stuyvesant High School, offered acceptance to only seven black students out of eight hundred and ninety-five slots. This is only one year in a steady decline in the acceptance of black students to the specialized school. For example, only ten black students were admitted to the school in the last academic term, and thirteen the year before. A similar trend has occurred in other specialized high schools, such as The Bronx High School of Science, with twelve students of color admitted last year, compared to twenty-five the previous.
New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, has a plan to diversify the elite specialized high schools. Part of his proposed plan is to eliminate the specialized high school entrance exams, also known as the SHSAT’s. This proposal has been met with an abundance of criticism from alumni organizations of the schools, as well as Asian American groups, who fear that this elimination would lower the academic rigor and standards the schools are known for. A City College of New York student, who works as a substitute paraprofessional for teachers assistants and wishes to remain under the name J.F, agrees that eliminating the test is not the way to go about combatting diversity issues: “I believe in diversity but, for once, I think this is wrong. I think we should be pushing students of different races to go into specialized high schools. Specialized high schools have an entry-level test you must pass to get considered for acceptance. Why aren’t all students being prepared and challenged to pass that exam?”
Thus far, the notion to eliminate the exam has been unsuccessful. While efforts, such as offers for free test prep and day-time examinations for the SHSAT’s, have been made, they have failed to effectively boost the admission rates for select groups of students, or diversify the student populations of these schools.
Another proposition made by Mayor De Blasio entails the elimination of talented and gifted programs in schools throughout the city. Under this proposal, high achievers would be forced to make sacrifices in their education in order for their schools to adequately support struggling learners and thus ‘level the playing field’. Olivia Kelly, a 7th grade teacher at Brilla College Prep School whose students would be deeply affected by these decisions, states: “I disagree that the programs should be eliminated because I truly believe that those programs do a good job of preparing students for life after high school.”
All of this, in summary, exposes a major fault line in a New York City school system that is failing a large contingency of their students by failing to be accessible to all students, regardless of race and economic background. It stands to question, how are students supposed to be ready for the rigor of college and the real world if they are not able to access an education with the resources necessary to support them in reaching standards meant to challenge/prepare them? According to a study conducted by The New York Times, Black and Brown students make up roughly 67% of New York City schools. This majority of a minority population being excluded from these elite schools prove that question of resources over merit may play a part in the admission process.
Kelly said it best, the power of change for academics comes from the influences within, she states, “I believe those that have the knowledge and experience to make useful change are the ones seated in the desk and standing in the front of the room, teachers and students know best what they need”. Students need exposure to rigorous and challenging curriculums (based on education level), ingrained scaffolds and supports to facilitate student’s success, and finally, they must be nurtured in what they show growth and promise in. It is possible to do both and diversifying specialized high schools is just one vehicle in pursuit of this goal.