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Encouraging Trends to Embrace for Path Forward at City’s Specialized High Schools

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Mayor and Chancellor have major decisions to make (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

While our schools are shut down because of the coronavirus, recent good news points to successful efforts to improve the ethnic diversity of the city’s specialized high schools -- Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five others.

At the end of May, the New York City Department of Education issued its report on the Discovery Program. Created over 50 years ago to improve admissions for black and Latino students, it had fallen into complete disuse, except at Brooklyn Tech. To be eligible, students must score a bit below the cutoff on the specialized high school exam (SHSAT) and qualify under federal anti-poverty guidelines. Those who enter the Discovery Program take enhanced educational courses over the summer to better prepare them for the rigors of the specialized high school curriculum.

Several years ago, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, advocated for the reintroduction of Discovery but with a tweak to admit more black and Latino students by focusing eligibility on underrepresented middle schools. Because Asian-American families in New York City have the highest poverty rate, only basing eligibility on economic status did not appreciably enter black and Latino students.

The number of Discovery seats this year is 800 compared to 250 in 2018. This year, 470 Discovery invitations went to black and Latino students, compared to only 278 last year. This is a significant increase over what existed before the Department of Education accepted our suggestion. Even more exciting, now there are first-time admissions from middle schools previously not represented among the student bodies of the specialized high schools.

While black and Latino Discovery admissions greatly increased, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza poo-poos the achievement: He says revamped Discovery “does not move the needle enough,” which is classic Carranza. He refuses to say that anything short of eliminating the SHSAT is good enough, no matter how good.

For another example, he testified at the City Council that he disfavored expanding the city’s Dream test prep program, which also improves the specialized high school admission rates of black and Latino students. He said it “would not be a good use of resources,” although he blames private test prep for the demographic disparity in admissions.

Here again, Carranza is wrong. For the past six years, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation has run a pilot program combining focused outreach to underrepresented Brooklyn middle schools with two years of educational enrichment and free test prep. Sixty percent of participants were accepted at a specialized high school. Most were black, Latino, or female, another underrepresented group in our specialized schools.

The students from our first cohort are now attending Binghamton, Brown, CCNY, Cornell, Howard, Macaulay Honors, Middlebury, Northeastern, Rutgers, SUNY Buffalo, UCLA, and Michigan. This program should serve as a model for the city to roll out an effective affirmative action program based at each of the specialized schools.

Several years ago, the state allocated $1.75 million to the New York City DOE to launch similar programs at the specialized schools. At Tech, where we got a dedicated grant of $250,000, we doubled the size of our program. For the rest, the DOE did nothing.

Since arriving in New York, Carranza has repeatedly criticized the specialized high schools because the percentage of black and Latino students attending these schools is too low. He ignores that 20 years ago, the enrollment of black and Latino students at the specialized schools was much better. Back then, the Education Department had enhanced educational opportunities like gifted elementary programs and junior high SP classes in the schools serving heavily black and Latino communities.

Carranza should recognize that eliminating the test does nothing to improve the education in our schools for the children he wants to help. To restore equity in our specialized schools, he needs to improve the coursework offered in these communities while supporting innovative and successful efforts to promote diversity now. The models are here.

Our schools will eventually reopen, but it is now time for the Chancellor to recognize that he should lead, not criticize. He owes it to all the city’s children but especially to the students in the black and Latino communities.

Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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