New York schools are highly segregated. Are we finally starting to tackle the divide?

Offers to specialized high schools according to race

Even in poor areas, schools with more white students get more resources

75 percent of black and Hispanic students attend a school that has less than 10 percent of white students

Number of sports teams per school

95 percent black and Latino students

5 percent black and Latino students

 
 

By the Numbers: Schools, Segregation, Screening

Many have come to agree that New York public schools should be more diverse.

But the data shows the city has a long way to go

By Josefina de la Fuente

On May 17, the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education turned 65 years old. That historic verdict said that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and against the U.S. Constitution. Yet, segregation still exists, and New York schools rank at the very top of the most segregated educational systems in the country, according to a report by University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project.  

 

Between 2017 and 2018, 75 percent of the black and Hispanic students in the city attended a school with less than 10 percent of white students, according to an analysis made by the City Council with data provided by the city´s Department of Education.

 

Furthermore, high-poverty, nonwhite school districts in New York State, on average, are behind high-poverty white school districts in resources per student by $4,094, according to a report released by the nonprofit Ed Build, an organization that conducts policy analysis.

 

Due to a combination of geography, economics, and possibly even inherent racism, school districts in New York City also serve as invisible walls dividing the city’s children.

 

“Geography does matter and these school district boundaries do make a difference. In the state of New York there are gaps in funding between white and predominantly non white school districts,” said Matt Richmond, chief program officer of Ed Build.

 

Barriers that separate students by race or income are not new to New York City schools. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been shy about using the terminology, refusing to mention the word segregation. However, the outspoken new schools chancellor Richard Carranza, who assumed his position in 2018, has made integration in New York City as a priority. Finally, the city seems ready to talk about it.

 

The acceptance of only seven black students out of 895 spots in the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in March hit a nerve in New York City. And the release of complete data about admissions in the city´s specialized schools triggered a citywide discussion about segregation around New York City´s educational system. So did a parent´s rebellion in Brooklyn that has led to a radical change in the middle school admission process in District 15, where schools will be far more economically and racially balanced come September.

 

“We are in a moment of inflection in New York City,” said Chancellor Carranza at the beginning of a town hall on May 1.

 

The subject of racial and economic segregation in New York´s schools is extremely complex, but we hope the following explainer serves as a starting point for understanding some of its aspects.

 

How does the city’s specialized high school system work?

 

New York´s controversial specialized high schools educate only a small percentage of the city´s high school students, but they have become a main character in the dramatic debate about diversity and segregation in the city’s schools that has even come up in the city and the state legislature.

 

There are nine specialized high schools in New York City that aim to educate students who excel academically or artistically. Eight of these schools offer admissions based on the student´s performance in the Specialized High Schools Admissions Tests, or SHSAT for short. The remaining specialized school, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, uses an audition for admission.

 

Proponents say the testing system offers a race-blind way to screen for merit and ability. Critics, on the other hand, argue that this standardized test favors the already-advantaged and those who can game the system with costly test preparation, and thus generates segregation.

 

Almost a year ago, Mayor de Blasio agreed with the critics and proposed to scrap the test-based admission for the specialized schools. He floated another idea: to diversify specialized schools by offering spots to these schools to the top 7 percent of students of each middle school.   

“There is no research that shows that a single test is the best way to identify students for opportunities in specialized schools,” said Chancellor Carranza after a hearing in the City Council on May 1.

 

Are the specialized schools segregated?

 

Admission numbers to the specialized schools lay the problem bare.

 

In the last admission process, according to data provided by the city´s Department of Education, 51.1 percent of the offers to these schools went to Asian students, following by 28.5 percent to white, 6.6 percent to Latino, and 4 percent to black students.

 

The numbers are not even close to mirroring the composition of the city´s educational system overall, where 40.5 percent of the students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 16.1 are Asian, and only 15 percent are white, according to the Department of Education.

Is the city able to change the admission process of any specialized high school on its own?

 

Technically, yes. The test admission process is protected by state law.  But the law, the Hecht-Calandra Act passed in 1971, only protects the test-based admission process for the three specialized high schools that were specifically named in the law—Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech.  

 

According to some experts, then, Mayor de Blasio has the authority to change the admission process of the five remaining schools that use the standardized admission test.

 

But the mayor does not agree with that interpretation, saying that the only way to get rid of the test is through the legislature in Albany. “The state law does not outline a process for de-designating [the schools], and we expect that any efforts to de-designate would be challenged,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, as reported by Politico.

 

The Hecht-Calandra Act, said Chancellor Carranza at a town hall on May 1, “was a response to desegregation efforts,” an attempt to block integration. And “that law persists today, and we get lost in the semantics of ‘Oh, is this a good test? Is this a bad test?’”

 

“The question you should be asking is, what´s the basis of the law?” he added. “And if it aligns with what we say we believe in New York City.”

 

For now, the city has asked lawmakers in Albany to pass a bill to eliminate the test-only admission process in these elite high schools. 

"The good news is that if this proposal is in fact enacted and if lawmakers in Albany rescind Hecht-Calandra, by going to their local middle school and doing well in school they will now have an opportunity to go to one of these schools without having to spend that kind of money," said Carranza.

 

The city's proposal to diversity the specialized high schools by getting rid of the test, however, has faced strong opposition by parents, students and advocacy groups. Many in these groups propose that instead of dropping the test, the city could add free test preparation services and expand the number of specialized schools so more students could be accommodated.

 

But the discussion around testing and segregation doesn´t end with the specialized high schools.  In 2017 to 2018, according to the Center for New York City Affairs, an applied policy research institute, nearly 15 percent of the city’s 277,521 high school students attended schools with academic screens, compared to fewer than 6 percent who attended the specialized high schools, a process that arguably creates more segregation.

 

What are screened schools?

 

Screened schools use student performance information to make an admission decision. In the screening process, schools—high schools and middle schools—can review academic records, attendance, and interview students, among other things. New York City has 73 high schools out of 424 and 110 middle schools out of 483 that screen their students in the admission process, according to the Center of New York Affairs.

 

The percentage of Asian and white students in these schools, according to data provided by the Department of Education, will grow as the schools increase the selectivity of their admission processes.
 

 

The use of screening in the middle schools is the biggest contributor to segregation, said the School Diversity Advisory Group, a group designated by Mayor de Blasio to assess the city’s school integration efforts in a February report.

 

In the city’s middle schools, according to the report, families can consider any school “throughout their home district, particularly in communities where there are no zoned schools and students can apply to any of the middle schools.”

 

The process effectively gives them a degree of choice within their district.

 

“This should lead to diverse middle schools in our more integrated neighborhoods. However, we see that is not the case,” said the report, which identified only nine districts out of 32 in the city with sufficient socioeconomic diversity to meet the group´s goals for economically integrated schools.

 

The advisory group also believes that screened admissions play an important role in shaping these outcomes.  As noted, screened schools can evaluate not only academic record, but also the attendance of students.

 

“The impact of a kid's attendance has nothing to do with their desire to go to school, it has more to do with their ability to, like, pay for transportation, or whether or not they had somewhere to sleep last night, there are so many different factors,” said Matt Gonzales, a member of the advisory panel group.  

 

Gonzales argued that, for instance, evaluating a child’s attendance record in the selection process is unfair, considering that kids that come from low-income families are more likely to miss or be late for school.

 

In the past year, District 3, which includes the Upper East Side and Harlem, and District 15, located in Park Slope and Sunset Park, made changes to the middle school admissions process. District 15 eliminated the screened admissions, and District 3 gave priority to low-income, low-performing students for 25 percent of their seats.

 

Kristen Berger, first vice president of the District 3's Community Education Council, said that parents tell her that they value diversity in the city's school. However, she argues, changes have not been easy to implement because in reality, parents aren´t as flexible when it comes to where their own children go to school.

 

“We frequently hear, ´We want diversity but later,´ or ´Differently,´ and I think a lot of that couches in statements like `I want diversity in some way that it´s not going to affect my child. I want diversity to happen in like four years when my kids are out of the schools.´ So definitely, we hear a consistent voice for diversity but change was scary, there was a lot of opposition,” said Berger. “Everyone wants their own kids to be privileged in that system.”

 

At the elementary school level, many schools are zoned. They admit students solely considering residency in the school’s attendance zone—in other words, only on the basis of where a student lives. Twenty-nine out of the city´s 32 districts are divided into attendance zones. The other three are “choice districts,” with no zoned schools, which means that students can apply to any schools in these districts.  

 

Because of this geographic factor, school segregation can be explained, to some extent, by housing segregation. An argument that Mayor de Blasio has used in the past.

 

“We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

 

But the numbers don't completely support the mayor’s assessment. According to a study released by the Center of New York Affairs, 124 of the city´s 734 neighborhood elementary schools have poorer student bodies than the average incomes of the population in the zones where they are located. School segregation, it seems, goes beyond housing segregation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         Source: Center for New York City Affairs 


 

In another report, the Center of New York Affairs said that only 60 percent of New York City kindergartners attended their zone’s schools in the 2016- 2017 school year, and that if “all children in public elementary schools went to their zone’s schools, the city´s schools would be marginally less segregated than they are now.”  

 

Screened schools also exist in the city at the elementary school level, another factor to the diversity of schools. In this case, we are talking about admission into schools with a “Gifted and Talented Program.”

 

What is the Gifted and Talented Program?  

 

There are two answers to this question: The Gifted and Talented program is an option for supporting the educational needs of exceptional students, according to the Department of Education. But G &T, as it’s often called, also refers to a test-based admission process to identify “exceptional students” in kindergarten through 5th grade. More than 32,841 kids tested for the program, and only 7,950 obtained a qualifying score.

 

The composition of the universe of students who take the test is radically different from the composition of students that finally get an offer to enter these schools. Around 42 percent of the offers to the Gifted and Talented program go to white students, 39 percent to Asian, 10 to Latino and 8 percent to black students, according to the city´s Department of Education. This contrasts with the composition of kindergarten students in the city, where Latino and black students account for more than 60 percent of the kids.

 

The numbers are stark—most of the children in New York City public schools get squeezed out of opportunities to attend more strenuous programs, essentially making it harder for them to succeed.

 

“As long as our system requires that some people be labeled as failures,” said Toni Smith Thompson, an advocate of the nonprofit New York Civil Liberties Union, “the people who are labeled as failures are going to disproportionately be people who have historically faced marginalization.”

 

And as long as the school admissions process results in less diversity, albeit in most instances unintentionally, New York City’s schools are likely to remain among the nation’s most segregated.

School Segregation: A Big Experiment in Brooklyn

 

How District 15 tackled the diversity challenge head on

By Lucas Manfield

Four years ago, Antonia Ferraro’s son was rejected from all of his preferred middle schools. The boy burst into tears.

 

Unlike many of his friends who were accepted to middle schools with higher test scores and less diverse student bodies, he was headed to a school in South Slope, Brooklyn. He was the only child in his elementary school assigned there, and he would be travelling—four subway stops and a 10-block walk—alone.

 

Many children “internalize this idea that they have failed because their friends have gotten into one of the more choice middle schools,” Ferraro said. “We were so fed up.”

 

The problem, many parents and administrators say, is the application process–called screening–which limits admission to certain schools based on a variety of factors, from students’ attendance to standardized test scores. Ferraro joined other advocates in a multi-year battle to eliminate these screens and, hopefully, reduce school segregation in the process.

And it appears to have worked, surprising even its staunchest supporters but frustrating some parents who feel cheated by the changes.

 

Beginning with this school year, screening was eliminated at every middle school in Ferraro’s district and just over half the slots at each school were set aside for disadvantaged students: those eligible for free and reduced lunch, classified as English-language learners, or living in temporary housing.


And last month, when the Department of Education released the demographics of students admitted into the district’s middle schools for the coming school year, desegregation advocates were overjoyed.

The Fight for Equal Access to Sports

Students charge that the disparity in athletics at predominantly black and Latino high schools violates human rights laws

“These numbers from District 15 are amazing,” said Matt Gonzalez, executive director of New York Appleseed, a school integration advocacy group. “I wasn’t expecting such dramatic change in one year.”

 

At M.S. 88, the South Slope middle school Ferraro’s son attended four years ago, 81 percent of students in 2018 would have been categorized as disadvantaged under the current system. This year, assuming everyone admitted actually enrolls, it will be 53 percent, nearly reaching its goal: the district average of 52 percent.

 

District 15 has 11 middle schools, including Park Slope’s M.S. 51, a prestigious public school known for sending its students to the city’s most elite high schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s kids went there. As of last year, it extensively screened its fifth-grade applicants. According to a handbook distributed by the Department of Education, M.S. 51 reviewed prospective students’ grades, test scores, “work habits,” and punctuality. On top of that, every applicant was interviewed. Nine other middle schools in the district had devised their own screens as well. New Voices School of Academic & Creative Arts, held auditions.

 

All that is now gone.

 

Some parents are upset by the changes. At a meeting in early May at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, parents in the audience who had been assigned to schools considered by some to be less desirable worried that the changes were going to force families out of the public school system. One father said he listed nine schools as his child’s preferred choice and matched with none of them.

 

In an interview with NYCityLens, a black mother whose son went to M.S. 51 expressed frustration that her daughter got into none of the seven District 15 middle schools—including the Big 3, a trio of middle schools with top reputations—the family had listed. She said, “My children are black. You’re saying to me that because my children don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch, they don’t help diversity?” She declined to be named because she is appealing the decision and does not want to make waves.

 

Screening gained popularity in New York City in the 1990s as a way of combating white flight. Instead of children simply being assigned to their nearest neighborhood school–the traditional zoning system–parents could apply to any school in the district, which were freed to set their own admission standards. The strategy worked. As white families began flooding Park Slope and other growingly affluent areas of western Brooklyn, the number of white kids in public schools increased.

But the result was widespread segregation. The Big 3 became the middle schools of choice for white families. By 2017, over half of students at these three schools—M.S. 51, M.S. 447, and New Voices—were white. Under a third qualified as economically disadvantaged, meaning their parents earn less than 185 percent of the poverty line. Meanwhile, at the two middle schools in Sunset Park, nearly the entire school qualified.


For some parents, this notion that there are “good” and “bad” schools is unpalatable. “How can our kids learn kindness within a segregated system? If a school isn’t good enough for some children, it isn’t good enough for any child,” said Kate Lynch, who currently has a child in P.S. 32, a District 15 elementary school.

 

The opaque screening system also incentivized some parents to go to extreme lengths to ensure their children got into their preferred schools. Sonia

Park, a parent whose son attended middle school in District 15, said that because one of the screening criteria was number of absences, she and other parents would send sick children to school regardless of their condition. Other parents resort to expensive test prep and admissions counselor services, which can cost upwards of $300 per hour.

 

Ferraro had been blogging about the issue—a recent post was titled “Don’t Think Integration. Think Potluck!”—when she was approached in 2017 by a group called District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity and recruited to run for the district’s Community Education Council. The group had collected data showing a vast majority of parents wanted to see the district explore alternatives to the current admissions systems, and they put it in front of everyone they could: the education council, the district superintendent, and local politicians. Miriam Nunberg, one of the groups founders, said that a confluence of factors—political turnover, the election of Trump, and the new chancellor—led to a wave of support for desegregation.

 

Meanwhile, the city was starting to take the problem seriously. In 2017, the Department of Education issued a report on school diversity. Its goals were tepid, but its mere existence sent a signal: diversity was now, it read, a “priority for the DOE.” Then, in 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a new school chancellor, Richard Carranza, who introduced a novel word into the city’s education policy lexicon: “segregation.” The mayor soon followed suit.

 

There was significant pushback. Much of it, parents and advocates said, happened behind closed doors. But in one highly publicized instance the anger leaked out. NY1 published video last year of parents at an Upper West Side elementary school railing against desegregation efforts, arguing that it was unfair to deprive their children access to the most desirable schools.

By Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio

It’s the team that barely has any equipment to play. The team that reuses the same jerseys every single year. The team that can only practice twice a week because it share its soccer field with at least two other schools. It’s the team that only has half a gym to practice basketball.

 

That’s how Matt Diaz, a 17-year-old Latino student, describes his and his classmates’ experience playing any sport at Bronx Academy of Letters in the South Bronx. No matter the sport—baseball, basketball, or soccer—the situation is the same: resources are few and far between. Though the circumstances have been slowly improving as the Department of Education takes some steps in the right direction (Diaz’s high school now has eight school sports when a couple of years ago it had just two) students and activists say that there is still a long way to go.

 

The reality at Bronx Academy is the reality for thousands of minority students in public high schools across New York City, according to Diaz and other activists. There are simply fewer options for these students to participate in school-sponsored sports programs than there are at schools that are not predominantly black and Latino.

 

“Unfortunately, most black and Latino students can agree with what I just said,” said Diaz. These students do not have the opportunity to reap the benefits of sports that are available in schools with more sports options, activists say. These include better school attendance rates, healthier lifestyles, and higher grades.

 

Last June, Matt Diaz, along with three other individuals including Lisa Parks, another student at Bronx Academy of Letters, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education, represented by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a legal advocacy group. The four students are lead plaintiffs in the case. The lawsuit alleges that the disparity in access to sports in public high schools that are predominantly black and Latino, compared to available sports in other schools, violates New York City’s human rights laws.  

 

According to the complaint, more than 17,300 students didn’t have access to any Public School Athletic League (PSAL) sports in the 2016-2017 school years. The PSAL is the league part of the Department of Education that funds and organizes sports teams in public schools. New York City records show that while the average black and Latino student will have 15.6 PSAL teams at their school, there are 25 teams for students of other races at other schools, the complaint says.

 

These numbers, which come from publicly available DOE data, took about a year to analyze with statistical experts, said Melissa Iachan, a senior staff attorney at the lawyers’ public interest group. The group has been working on the issue of sports inequality in schools since 2014, along with organizers and students across New York City.

 

The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the nation, and most of the student plaintiffs in the lawsuit attend schools in the district, Iachan said.

 

“They are a really good, glaring example of what happens when segregation deprives black and brown students of equal resources,” she said.

Since they filed the lawsuit in June, Iachan says, she has seen the DOE make moves towards improving the conditions of black and Latino students looking to play sports in public schools.

 

“Now we are slowly engaging in settlement discussions with the city and the Department of Education who do seem to want to resolve this,” Iachan said. “We just need to ensure that we are going to be able to find a way where they make commitments and are able to follow through on them, and that we have a way to hold them accountable.”

 

The lawsuit was filed just a few months into New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first term—and since then Iachan has seen more positive responses from education officials, she said. When Carranza saw the numbers, Iachan said, he acknowledged that the system was really segregated. “He was talking about it in a way that other people have not spoken about it,” she said.

 

NYCityLens asked the Department of Education for comment on the lawsuit, but did not received a response.

 

While the case winds through the courts, the students who have been affected by the disparity still have to live with its consequences. In the South Bronx, Diaz says things need to change.  When he started high school, he was surprised at the lack of choices for sports at his school. He grew up playing volleyball every summer, and was expecting there to be a team at his high school. But there wasn't.

 

He switched to soccer, but at first that wasn’t possible either. Bronx Letters was denied a soccer team during Diaz’s first year in high school, and then was granted a team for his last couple of years. But he said the resources were still scarce—they shared the field with other schools which didn’t allow them to practice more than two or three times a week, and they could play only nine games per season.

 

First, he just thought it was because his school was small—Bronx Letters has about 600 students in the high school and middle schools combined. With the help of his dean, David Garcia-Rosen, Diaz started looking at the data about where sports resources were distributed. Diaz knew something was off.

“Once I started learning about the statistics,” said Diaz, “that’s when I really took action.”

 

The lawsuit, with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s guidance, was eventually filed.

 

Now, Diaz is the executive director of IntegrateNYC, a nonprofit organization that combats issues surrounding school segregation, and works to bring kids together to contact council members, create lobby days, and testify at City Council hearings. He has meetings almost every single day, he said, and works on the weekends.

 

While growing up in the South Bronx, Diaz said, he and many of his friends looked up to athletes as their heroes and hoped to some day follow their example. But once he got to high school, Diaz realized that he wasn’t in an environment that could foster any sort of athletic advancement.

 

“Stereotypically, many people in the South Bronx think about their idols to be like athletes to be like Lebron James or Serena Williams in tennis,” he said. “Being in a school that does not have sports, what can you look up to? Basically nothing.”

 

Diaz does look up to Dean Garcia-Rosen, the school’s dean and athletic director.  The two are close—they joke about TV shows, exchange light-hearted banter in Garcia-Rosen’s office—but they also work together seriously practicing testimony, setting up meetings with council members, and traveling to lobby days and events.

 

“The person who has been most supportive is the guy that created this case—David, David Garcia-Rosen,” Diaz said.

 

Garcia-Rosen, 42, isn’t new to the issue. He has been fighting for equal access to sports since 2005, when he was first a teacher at Marie Curie High School in the Bronx. He tried to start a girls’ soccer club that he hoped to turn into a PSAL team. That never happened while he worked there. Now, he’s been at Bronx Letters for almost four years, and he and Diaz have both seen changes since they started there. There used to be two PSAL sports teams, now there are seven for high school. Attendance is better overall, grades are up, and kids have the opportunity to work out in the weight rooms, so they are healthier, Garcia-Rosen said. And the camaraderie that has formed around sports at Bronx Letters brings a smile to his face.

 

“There’s really nothing else in a school building that provides for the community to come together and cheer for the same thing,” said the dean. “There’s something very unique about that.”

 

Garcia-Rosen attributes these changes to the activism of students who have fought to get the additional teams to Bronx Letters. Last year, he said, students like Diaz became more vocal about the issues and started calling PSAL officials, organizing, and creating groups like IntegrateNYC to increase public awareness about what was going on.

 

But “we got it by screaming the loudest,” Garcia-Rosen said. “As exciting as that is, it’s also indicative of a problem.” Black and Latino students shouldn’t have to work this hard to have the same amount of sports teams as high schools that are predominantly made up of other races, he said.

There are some small steps in the right direction, activists say. In March of 2019, the PSAL announced a new pilot program called the PSAL All-Access program, which has added 19 new PSAL teams for 26 schools across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. Combined, these schools have an estimated 8,500 students. Iachan is encouraged by the pilot program, but she stressed that it wasn’t going to fix the underlying sports inequity problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The pilot program is not a cure-all and has a lot of flaws,” Iachan said. “But at least it does exhibit the desire to think about a different way of doing things.”

 

Garcia-Rosen notes that these changes don’t mean that the system that exists for black and Latino students is the same as that which exists for students of other races. At Bronx Letters, he said, the pilot program hasn’t actually increased the number of teams they have. But it has allowed some students such as Lisa Parks, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, to run track at another school: Bronx Health Sciences High School.

 

“Is it equitable? Not even close,” Garcia-Rosen said of the PSAL. “But there are schools that didn’t have anything that now have one team. There are schools that didn’t have anything that now have six teams. Again, not even close to equity, never mind equality. But we are moving the needle slowly.”

 

Both Iachan and Garcia-Rosen stress that the most plausible solution to this inequity is combining sports teams from multiple small schools together. Bronx Letters, for example, is trying to create a system where their PSAL teams compete under the name of Bronx United along with students from The American Dream Charter School and East Bronx Academy for the Future. This would create an umbrella system where one PSAL team could include members from different high schools. It would give small schools who often don’t have enough players to qualify for a PSAL sports team an opportunity to pool together students and resources for athletics, activists say.

 

For Diaz it might be too late. He is graduating this year. He never had the opportunity to play volleyball in high school, but he hopes that through his activism, along with his classmates’, change will come soon. He will keep taking action against these inequalities, he said.

 

“I always fought for what is needed to have an equitable and just school,” Diaz said. “It has been a journey, a really big journey, but it has been fun, I’ve felt at community here.

What the Students Say

 

Asian: 4%

Black: 26%

Hispanic: 65%

White: 2%

English language learners: 3%

Students with special needs: 19%

University Heights High School

AYANA SMITH, 17

The Case for "Screening"

While some see admission standards as a road to school segregation, others—including some low-income parents of all races—see them as a path to a better educational environment for their kids

By Argyro Partsakoulaki

 
 

By this past school year, many parents and advocates in one Brooklyn school district, District 15, had come to feel that what is called “screening” for the 11 middle schools within its boundaries had slowly created an unbalanced system—with some schools mostly white, and others with a high percentage of children from lower-income families, including blacks and Hispanics. The district had become increasingly segregated, and students who were relegated to less successful schools often feeling a sense of failure. A problem.

 

Then, in one fell swoop, the district changed its system and, among other things, eliminated screening. As a result, schools in District 15 will be far more racially and economically balanced. Problem solved? Time will tell.

 

But meanwhile, the practice of screening has come under scrutiny citywide. And the issue is extremely complicated. For one thing, some low-income parents, including parents from black and brown families and Asian families, strongly defend the practice.

 

Here are some of their arguments, as well as some context for those arguments:

 

What is 'screening'?

 

In New York City, schools can be open to admitting children of all abilities, or they can set admission requirements, or screens. The latter, according to data from the Department of Education, often tends to favor white and Asian students from high-income neighborhoods.

 

The screens can determine admission to middle schools and high schools based on grades, test scores, attendance, an exam or an interview, or an audition to assess artistic talent. Other kinds of screens might give priority in admissions to children learning English. The most challenging of all screenings remains the entrance exam for the eight specialized high schools in New York City—the Specialized High School Admissions Test, commonly called the SHSAT.

 

Proponents of screening say the screens help create a learning environment at certain schools. Critics argue that they often reinforce segregation in the city’s educational system.

 

Screening by the numbers

 

More than half the students in academically screened high schools are black and Hispanic, according to a 2019 study by the Center for New York City Affairs. Specifically, some 58 percent of the students in academically screened high schools were black and Hispanic in 2017 to 2018, compared to 65 percent of high school students citywide. Some 60 percent of the students at screened schools were low-income compared to 74 percent citywide.

 

The numbers indicate that black and Hispanic students are concentrated in unscreened schools, which, have lower levels of performance as measured by averages of state standardized test scores or graduation rates. These schools, which have higher student performance, serve mainly white and Asian students, as they are more likely to attend screened schools.

 

The total number of students in screened high schools was 41,311 in total during the 2017-2018 school year, far more that the 15,540 students who attended the eight schools that use the SHSAT, the specialized high schools that get more attention in the media. That was particularly true after one of the schools, Stuyvesant High School, admitted just seven black students last year, out of 895 spots.

 

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to increase the number of black and Hispanic students at eight specialized high schools by replacing the entrance exam has dominated headlines in recent months. The plan to replace the SHSAT requires approval from the state legislature, as the test is set by law for three of the specialized high schools. But the mayor and the schools chancellor could make changes to the admission requirements for other schools on their own.

 

Carranza, soon after he became schools chancellor, said screens are “antithetical” to the mission of public education. More recently, he has walked that back somewhat, and said such tests have a limited “very specific” place.

 

A case study: Mott Hall III

 

Not all screens favor academically successful students. The city has 31 high schools and 15 middle schools that limit admissions to students who are still learning English. Not surprisingly, these screened language schools have high proportions of low-income students and overwhelmingly serve one language group—either Spanish speakers or Chinese speakers.

The city is divided into 32 community school districts and, with the exception of students in “citywide” gifted programs and a handful of other schools, most children are assigned to middle schools in the districts in which they live. So the racial composition of the city’s middle schools mirror, to a large extent, the racial makeup of its school districts.

 

Sometimes admissions are a combination of location and screening. For example, Mott Hall III, a middle school in District 9 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, served 97 percent black and Hispanic students and 93 percent low-income students in 2017 to 2018. It offers an accelerated curriculum with high school-level courses in algebra and biology in the 8th grade.

 

Mott Hall III is a mix: it screens applicants for good grades and attendance, but also serves children with a wide range of abilities, including some with special needs. The school sends graduates to academically demanding high schools, not only the SHSAT schools but also selective private schools such as the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx or Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

 

“It’s not that when we screen we favor blacks or Hispanics, this is the race of the people in the community where the school is,” said Disla Lim, 55, who teaches pre-K at P.S. 110 Theodore Schoenfeld, which shares a building with Mott Hall III. P.S. 110 is also a screened school.

 

In more prosperous districts, on the other hand, academic screens combined with geographical preference largely exclude black, Hispanic, and low-income children. Some schools that were racially mixed some years ago have “tipped” as demand increased; they now serve mostly whites and Asians and a few low-income children.

 

The arguments for screening and the SHSAT

 

As black and Hispanic students are concentrated in unscreened schools which, according to several studies, have lower levels of performance, some parents of minority students who support the tests and screenings, and see them as a means for their kids to have access to better education.

 

Damien Bevelle, 45, who graduated in 1992 from Brooklyn Technical High School after taking the SHSAT, has become an activist for the test, adding his voice to public forums. He said that for him, the test was a tremendous opportunity. As a result of the exam, he says, he was accepted in one of the eight specialized high schools in New York City that admit students according to their scores on the SHSAT.

 

Bevelle is a black man who grew up in South Jamaica Queens. “Now some suggest that the test is somehow an insurmountable obstacle for black and brown kids,” said Bevelle in a testimony before state senators. “I am convinced that the test remains a unique and tremendous opportunity for many working-class New York City students.”

 

The arguments about screening get particularly heated around the city’s nine specialized high schools.  This was particularly true after only seven black students were offered a seat at Stuyvesant.

 

An April 2019 Quinnipiac University survey showed that most New Yorkers are in favor of scrapping the SHSAT. Specifically, 57 percent favor other factors to determine admission in elite public high schools instead of relying on a single test.

 

But, for Bevelle, the significant drop in the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to specialized high schools is wrongly characterized by the mayor as a racial segregation issue. “Racial segregation requires that there must be a policy or practice of denying admission based on students’ racial or ethnic background. No such policy or practice exist regarding admission to the city’s specialized high schools,” said Bevelle. “What exists in New York City is a racial educational achievement gap, and the test illuminates this gap. But it should not be eliminated.”

 

In other words, Bevelle is deeply concerned by the precipitous drop in the number of black and brown students attending Brooklyn Tech and other specializes high schools.  However, he and other supporters of the SHSAT test argue that the reason is not the test, but the severely damaged educational infrastructure in many black and brown communities. They believe that if this is repaired, the kids of such communities will be able to do better at the test. They blame past and present cost-cutting policies, like the elimination of gifted and talented programs in many districts.

 

“I grew up in Fort Green, Brooklyn, where Brooklyn Technical is and when I used to see kids leave that school, they were mostly black and Hispanic. There were also Asians and all races,” said Clayton Broomes, a parent of sons who go to one of the gifted and talented schools of New York City, back in April on the stairs of City Hall after a City Council hearing. “Now it’s different,” he continued, “and I know it has nothing to do with the test”.

 

He said that he had relatives and friends who went to Brooklyn Technical High School and Bronx Science, two of the City’s specialized high schools.  

 

“My cousins went to Brooklyn Tech, so what happened? It’s the same test,” he said. “The problem is not the test, the problem is the schools. The politicians made changes that affected these schools.”  

 

Broomes said his son is about to take the SHSAT this year, for which he’s been preparing from an early age.

 

SHSAT: The special test?

 

The city’s Asian community has long taken part in the debate about the SHSAT. Many of them agree with Bevelle, and believe that instead of limiting the test, the city should provide students a better education from kindergarten to eighth grade. “For twenty years between the ‘70s and the ‘90s there were more than 50 percent black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools,” said Wai Wah Chin, founder and charter president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, in an interview with NYCityLens.

 

“In the '90s the gifted and talented programs disappeared. But it was this kind of nurturing at an early age that allowed kids of every race to perform well on the test. Now there are neighborhoods and districts where there is not even one gifted and talented program, and they happen to be black and Hispanic. If we talk about equity we should talk about access to these programs.”

 

A relatively high number of Asian students are admitted to top specialized high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science and Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. Specifically, 51 percent of all ethnicities who get offers to attend these highly selective schools are Asian.

 

Richard Carranza, the schools chancellor who supports phasing out the test, has claimed that Asian students somehow believe they “own” admission to the top public schools.

 

“The mayor and the chancellor don’t want to do the hard work in order to change education from K-8 in order to provide the best possible preparation for every kid to be able to take the test and succeed,” said Chin. “The easiest thing to do is blame the Asian community, but it’s unfair and exclusionary.”

 

On the other hand, some influential members of the Asian community are calling for a more aggressive approach to diversify the city’s infamously segregated public schools than a vague plan to improve education.

 

A coalition that includes representatives from the Chinese American Planning Council and the Coalition for Asian Children and Families wants to level the playing field for all kids by increasing the number of black and Hispanic kids in top schools.

 

The group wants Carranza to adopt recommendations published by the School Diversity Advisory Group that was created by de Blasio in 2017.

 

In February, the Advisory Group issued a report of more than 70 suggestions. The group was influenced by a youth-led organization that stands for integration and equity, called IntegrateNYC. This organization came up with the so-called 5R’s in 2018—race and enrollment, resources, relationships, restorative justice, and representation. These topics are the base of a framework of concrete ideas the group put forward to address the manifestations of segregation in public schools, and a set of questions that legislators should ask themselves when addressing issues of diversity, equity, and integration.  

 

But the debate about what to do about segregation will be a complicated and passionate one.

In an indication that the tide was turning in favor of the desegregation movement, the city’s newly minted chancellor shot back on Twitter. “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools,” Richard Carranza said, attaching a link to the video.

 

So far, the Department of Education has avoided implementing citywide integration policies, opting instead for a district-by-district approach. District 1, which encompasses the Lower East Side, was the first, giving admissions preference in its elementary schools to poorer students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. District 3 in Upper Manhattan and District 15 soon followed with changes to their own middle school admissions policies.

 

But District 15’s plan is the most radical—and appears to be the most effective.

All schools in the district made progress toward their integration goals. Meanwhile, in District 3, which did not abolish the screens, some middle schools with high numbers of poor students saw the number of offers to poor students actually increase. Gonzalez said there was a “clear contrast” between the results in District 3 and District 15, evidence that removing screening entirely was the best route toward integrating the city’s schools.

 

Gonzalez is on the citywide School Diversity Advisory Group, which was appointed by the mayor in 2017 and released its first series of recommendations in February. It called for more stringent school integration targets, but Gonzalez hopes the group takes a step further in its second report, due at the end of this school year. He wants to recommend eliminating all screening, starting in middle schools. Some form of middle school screening is currently used in 25 of the city’s 32 districts.

 

Gonzalez feels he has a strong ally in the chancellor and a powerful platform in the advisory group. But, he said, “We have to convince a lot of people,” starting with other members of the advisory group and ultimately the mayor. “This is more than a Mayor de Blasio issue,” he said.

 

De Blasio, for his part, said that “momentum for change is growing” when introducing the District 15 plan last year at M.S. 51. The mayor set aside $2 million to fund integration planning at ten other school districts. Five grants are planned to be announced later this year.

 

For Ferraro, change has already come. She has two other children, including an eight-year-old daughter in second grade. In a few years she’ll be applying to middle school, this time without a screening system limiting her options. “I’m really happy she won’t have to go through that,” Ferraro said. “I am tired of the parenting arms race.”

By Josefina de la Fuente

A yearning for diversity: Six high schoolers explain what they think they are missing

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