CityViews: There is a Model for Making NYC’s Specialized High Schools More Diverse

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Inside Bronx High School for Science, a place the vast majority of SHSAT-takers will not end up.

You have to hand it to the good folks at the New York Department of Education: Despite years of data that show admission to Specialized High Schools across the Boroughs discriminates along race and economic lines, they still closed their eyes to the fact that admitting on the sole basis of a test means that kids who have been trained to take tests will do better than those who haven’t. In the face of the ongoing lawsuit brought against them by the NAACP, the DOE did change the structure of the entrance exam, the SHSAT, to shoot for a more diverse admission pool.

Although we’re only a year out from the revamped test, we already know what will happen—schools and neighborhoods that can afford test prep programs will run them, and families that have just enough disposable income to purchase a Kaplan course (or, more flexible online tutorial programs like ArgoPrep) will spend the money and their students will have a better shot at getting into a top college-preparatory school. But, there is a way we can take the best of New York education, the test prep programs, and the DOE to actually change the face of who gets into these important high schools.

The Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) began with a single basketball—locked away from students in a Harlem school—and one man’s question, “What happens when the students from the worst of Harlem’s elementary schools leave it?” It has since become a national model for preparing students for college, and uses summer programs, college bridge experiences, tutors and counselors, and in-school enrichment activities to give birth to a community idea that poor, minority students are going to get into college and will break the cycle of poverty.

HEAF has branched out a bit to train a small group of middle-school students for the SHSAT, at a time when funding for Discovery Programs (the DOE’s initial answer to the admissions gap for specialized high schools) is almost non-existent. The most sought-after specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant, have eliminated their bridge programs, and others have made the requirements so narrow only the smallest group is served. To qualify for the Discovery Program, students must show academic promise but fail to meet the cutoff for admission into a specialized high school, must be on free or reduced lunch and disadvantaged in some other way (either by going to a Title 1 school or by being from a non-English speaking home). Only 202 students gained admission through a Discovery Program in 2017—double the number of 2011’s class—but that hasn’t made a dent in admissions numbers at the specialized high schools. (10% of students in those high schools are students of color, compared to 70% of New York City children.) The combined public/private/community/higher education partnerships that build HEAF’s SHSAT test prep and higher ed integration platforms are bright spots for a small handful of Harlem’s most needy students.

Still, a majority of HEAF resources are devoted to getting high schoolers into college. Most middle school students currently have to rely on third-party test prep companies, and those companies have capitalized. The name-brand college and graduate school prep companies (like Princeton Review and Kaplan) charge a premium to help students get an edge (both top out at nearly $1500 for a course and start at $1800 for private tutoring). Affordable (albeit online) self-paced programs (like ArgoPrep, capped at $120) provide different option for families who want their child to have the same type of advantages as the Kaplan Kids on exam day. But, even $120 is out of reach for many families within the Boroughs who earn just enough to disqualify for participation in a Discovery Program or HEAF middle school enrichment.

The enrichment gap is less a gap of rich and poor—both groups are served for preparation for the SHSAT—and more one of the lower-middle class, minority student who is systemically excluded from admissions into high schools which can propel students into college and change the economic status of their families for generations.

If a HEAF-model can be expanded to the middle-school level, minority students (especially) will benefit with an increase in admission to specialized high schools, which already prepare students for the SAT. The Discovery Program was developed as one answer to the disparity gap that exists on specialized high school campuses, but the success of the Program depends upon adequate funding, specialized high school campus buy-in (most campuses, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, ended their programs altogether in the early 2000s). But, even if run fully, there are no programs for lower/middle income students. That leaves most lower/middle income students without recourse: their circumstances aren’t exigent to qualify them for the small handful of programs that are still around, and they can’t afford the advantages of a prep course.

If we want to unlock the potential of our most unreached minority students in New York City, we have to start by getting them ready to play—we need a HEAF-like strategy and investment in our middle-school students.

Dr. Jill Graper Hernandez is the associate dean of University College and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

9 thoughts on “CityViews: There is a Model for Making NYC’s Specialized High Schools More Diverse

  1. Pingback: CityViews: There is a Model for Making NYC’s Specialized High Schools More Diverse - Ryan Guillory

  2. Your article claims that specialized high schools across the boroughs discriminate along race and economic lines. I beg to differ. The word “discriminate” is a strong, very misleading and wholly inappropriate term to use in this case. It will simply further inflame the situation with a false “us versus them” narrative. We’re all in this together as New Yorkers. New Yorkers who should be trying to preserve some of the best and most successful schools in our public educational system, and maintain their high educational standards – for all applicants.

    Selection by rigorous testing is not somehow equivalent to discrimination and exclusion by race. There is no latter-day, racist Bull Connor standing in the doorway of these schools, barring people from entering. Only the hurdles of mathematics, science, vocabulary, logic, and reading & writing skills are “standing” in the doorways of these specialized schools. They say to ALL: come, compete and try your best to make the cut. What’s more American than that?

    The label “elite” high schools is misleading. These schools are not for the “elite” – they are for every applicant regardless of class, who wants be the best, do the best and achieve the best. Rather than an “us versus them” narrative. everyone wins, all New Yorkers, when we preserve some of the best and most successful schools in our public educational system.

    Should skin color be the determining factor ? I thought that we were trying to get beyond that in our society.The admission test can be improved and expanded, but the test itself is color-blind, as it must be.

    Should it be a matter of percentages in the population perhaps? To paraphrase Dr. King: we should judge a person by their character and capabilities , not by the color of their skin, nor by their gender nor by their differences.
As for diversity, the majority of current students are actually of Asian background in the top specialized schools , far above their percentage in the City population. Should Caucasians therefore be also demanding that the entrance doors be arbitrarily broken down to let them in?
 This makes no sense. In fact it’s destructive of real opportunity and true equality. It’s like saying: Why give medals, awards and scholarships to the best and brightest, why even have an Olympics, if others are thereby left out or can’t make the cut?
Rather than symbolizing closed doors for some, these unique schools offer doors of opportunity for those who will try the hardest and perform the best, within a free public school context open to all.

    Of course every parent wants the best for their child. But their children will be subjected to all sorts of legitimate testing and selection throughout their lives. They need to prepare them for the real world if they want them to compete and succeed in life.
 Therefore parents should support the high standards and rigorous admissions of these schools , instead of watering down some of the best parts of our public high school system in the name of a false and ultimately destructive “diversity”.

    The problem lies not with the test itself, but with the preparation, with all that comes before. If you have a sieve you can circumvent its legitimate purpose by poking a hole in it, or by enlarging the slots, both of which are self-defeating.

    Or you could better prepare, mold and fortify the ingredients beforehand, the ingredients being our most precious asset – the youth of New York City. Applicants need to live up to the standards of the school, not the other way around.

    • “The problem lies not with the test itself, but with the preparation, with all that comes before.”

      There lies the rub. My elder son will start at a SHSAT school in the fall. He’s a smart kid and worked incredibly hard to prepare for the test. His public middle school did a lot to help him. But he also enjoyed tremendous advantages associated with race and class–the same ones I have enjoyed all my life.

      Having everyone run the same race is fair only when everyone has the same distance to run.

      • So fix the dang middle schools. I went to great elementary and middle schools, in the ‘hood’. Sadly, those schools have become crap. Is it the test’s fault? No. Fix the schools.

        • Yes! But until we do so, what do we do for students at those schools who show some real talent but get blocked by the test? Shall we tell them to wait, or to look forward to the better shot their children might have?

  3. It’s fascinating to see in live action how Asians are being whitewashed into “not people of color” when it’s politically expedient. No, people of color actually make over 65% of the student population of specialized high schools (when subtracting whites and unknowns from the total). It may not be the right color. It may not be diverse (it isn’t for the most part). But it’s still a minority-dominant student body. Oh, and over 45% of students attending those schools do qualify for free lunch based on their poverty levels.

    • Exactly! They conveniently ignore THE FACT, Asian students who go to Specialized High Schools are also students of color and the most of them are from lower income house hold, just like African American and Hispanic students.

  4. As a Black, female alumni of Brooklyn Tech high school it is sad to see how great the racial disparity has grown throughout the years. I graduated from tech some 30 years ago and it was one of the greatest experiences of my youth. This was do mostly to the diversity.
    Coming from an elementary and middle school that were predominantly black, Tech changed my outlook on the world. I had friends of every hue and social class. This environment alone, outside of the schools stellar classes, made us feel special. This is what put the special in specialized. Tech brought together like minds from all over the city and these collaborations were raceless, we were Technites and we loved our school.
    Sadly the tide has changed, for whatever reason diversity has fallen to the waste side. The specialness of these few high schools have now made them like so many high schools and neighborhoods in New York.
    I don’t know if doing away with these tests is the answer but it’s a start to regaining what has been lost. The real world is not all Black, it is not all White, it is not all Asian, it is not all Latin and Tech, at one time represented this, as did the other specialized high schools. We have to make a change and perhaps this is the 1st of many changes that need to happen to get these back on track and be inclusive to all that will contribute and make the world a better place. I’m not a dreamer but a realist. The ambition should be a fairness and not as some think a handout.

  5. There needs to be more diversity but I would refrain from using people of color as to only describe Latinos and African-Americans. My daughter is the only white person on her Brooklyn Tech high school year book page. Most of her friends were not white and were poor. Call it what it is, the under representation of African and Latino students buy in Trump’s America dark skinned girls in head coverings are not exactly white either. I hesitate to even use the word Hispanic as many of the Hispanics there, my daughter included, were white Hispanics.

    In fact the BLM is in deep with the Israeli-Palestinians by saying they are also people of color.

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