Editorial of The Times

Posted June 24, 2018 10:50 p.m. EDT

Integrate New York’s Best Schools

Across the country, local efforts are at last underway to integrate schools that remain profoundly segregated more than half a century after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Nowhere is that work more important than New York City, where the school system is not only the nation’s largest but also its most segregated.

After largely ignoring this reality for four years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has now taken an important step: He has put forward a plan to integrate eight of the city’s specialized high schools, storied institutions like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. These schools have, for generations, set those lucky enough to attend on paths to success, to middle-class security, to rewarding careers and even to Nobel Prizes.

These schools have a vital mission, to challenge the city’s sharpest young minds. But they are failing in that endeavor, because they all but shut out black and Latino students, leaving untold numbers of New York’s brightest children behind.

Black and Latino students make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Yet, of the 5,067 offers of admission to specialized schools this year, 51.7 percent went to Asian students and 26.5 percent to white students. Latino and black students received 6.3 and 4.1 percent of the offers, respectively. At Stuyvesant, the most sought-after of the schools, just 10 of the 902 students offered admission were black.

A single, three-hour test known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test is the sole screen for admission to the eight schools. This system arose from efforts to integrate these schools in 1971. Opponents of those efforts lobbied for a state law, known as Hecht-Calandra, that requires the three largest schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — to use only the exam. Over the past four decades, the exclusionary process spread as the five smaller specialized schools also adopted the exam as the sole admissions criterion.

New York’s elementary and middle schools do not prepare children for the test, all but ensuring that students seek out extensive test preparation. Many Asian and white students have done so for thousands of dollars apiece. Black and Latino students are likely to walk in with little or no test preparation.

That was the experience of Wyatt Perez, who was valedictorian of his Bronx middle school but didn’t do well enough on the test to attend a specialized school. Perez, now 17 and headed to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, said he remembered being given a book on the exam and left to study on his own. “I couldn’t find anyone to help me with it,” he said. “I had to look at videos on YouTube.”

Of all elite public high schools in the country, only New York’s use a single exam for admission. Researchers and others have said this approach is less predictive of success than grades, particularly for black and Latino students.

De Blasio has vowed to replace the test with a system, to be phased in over three years, that would eventually admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of grades and performance on state exams. City officials say that if the plan is implemented, the specialized high schools would be about 45 percent black and Latino.

The plan is far from radical. The University of Texas used a similar approach to maintain diversity when a court struck down its use of affirmative action years ago. New York City education officials estimate that students who would be admitted under the plan would have an average state test score of 3.9 out of 4.5, compared to 4.1 for students currently enrolled in the specialized schools. The average GPA, 94, would be the same.

Opposition has been swift and fierce, much of it from some alumni of the specialized schools, who have said the mayor’s plan would somehow lower the quality of education or “set kids up for failure.” The very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school — an experience that for years has been unfairly denied so many black and Latino New Yorkers.

Some alumni — black alumni — have described in painful detail their isolated experiences in the schools. They include de Blasio’s son, Dante, who attended Brooklyn Tech. In a Daily News op-ed article this month, he said his experience was marred by racial slurs and slights that included a teacher laughing at a black student who said she wanted to be a doctor.

In recent weeks, some Asian groups have protested outside City Hall and in Brooklyn, saying that Asian students will lose seats. Asian children are about 16 percent of the district’s student body but a majority at schools like Stuyvesant. Many come from families that have scrimped on essentials like food to pay for test prep. Such objections are understandable, but they don’t change the fact that the admissions policy is flawed and unfair to other children.

Some opponents of the plan have also said the city should focus on improving education at schools already attended by black and Latino students. (Of course, the city ought to do that, too.) This argument underscores that the current testing regime is not “race-blind,” since it can’t be separated from the reality of unequal schools and the disadvantages of generations of poverty and racism.

In an interview, the city’s new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, argued that relying on a single test harmed all New Yorkers, including Asian families who spend scarce resources on test prep. “I’m sorry that the system has forced you to spend your time, your treasure on preparing your kids for that test,” he said. “Help is on the way.”

The city has said that it’s considering adding seats in the schools, to mitigate some concerns. It might also consider increasing outreach to show families other excellent options, including schools like Edward R. Murrow High School and Midwood that draw students from around the city through competitive admissions.

For the plan to succeed, the city will surely need to increase remedial and enrichment programs at the specialized high schools, to serve students who were at the top of their classes but whose middle schools may not have prepared them for the rigor of a Stuyvesant.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the mayor’s full plan is political, since it will require overturning Hecht-Calandra. That would take forceful lobbying from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has so far signaled only lukewarm support.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to stop the mayor from implementing those parts of his plan that don’t require state action. He could begin with the five specialized high schools not covered by the 1971 state law.

De Blasio could also consider applying the plan, or something similar, to the city’s other competitive high schools, many of which are also failing to admit significant numbers of black and Latino students.

It is a bitter irony, or just a deeply damning fact, that the spirit of Jim Crow would prove so stubborn in a city whose leaders pride themselves on their enlightened politics. Without aggressive action, New York will continue to fail its black and Latino students, a waste of their potential and its own.

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