paradigm shift

Complaint targets elite HS admissions process, not just outcome

A chart in a civil rights complaint about the city's specialized high school admissions process shows the acceptance rates for students of different racial groups. (Click to enlarge.)

It seemed like a good strategy: To boost the tiny number of black and Hispanic students at the city’s most elite high schools, the city this year expanded access to programs meant to prepare eighth-graders for the schools’ admissions test.

But that approach is fundamentally broken, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

“More tutoring and more test prep is not the answer,” said Damon Hewitt, LDF’s director of education. “We need a real paradigm shift.”

The complaint calls for a new way of admitting students to the city’s eight specialized high schools. The schools have long screened students by ranking their performance on a one-time exam, a practice that was written into state law in 1972 for the three schools that were then open.

But that approach has yielded student bodies that do not reflect the city’s demographics — or even the demographics of the students who take the test. Last year, black and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of test-takers, but they represented only 14 percent of admitted students. At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective and least racially diverse, just 25 black and Hispanic students were offered seats.

Along with several community groups and legal groups, the Legal Defense Fund — which sprung from but is not actually part of the NAACP — is asking the federal Office of Civil Rights to push the city to advocate for changes to the admissions process. The office cannot mandate changes, but it can make the city’s federal school aid contingent on changes to the admissions process to make it more equitable. The office has 180 days to respond to the complaint.

The complaint suggests several alternatives to the current admissions process. First, it says the city should adopt a “multiple-measures” approach to assessing applicants, by looking at their grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and life experiences. Although the process could seem onerous when 30,000 students take the high school exam each year, many other selective schools already assess students according to multiple measures, Hewitt said.

The city should also compel all of the specialized schools to participate in an expanded version of a program that has allowed black and Latino students who score just below each school’s cutoff to win admission by participating in a summer program, the complaint argues. Currently, the city’s most selective schools opt out of this program.

And the complaint argues that the city should also reserve some seats at each school for top students from across the city. In 2010, Stuyvesant High School’s ninth-grade included students from only 22 of the city’s 32 school districts, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented. The final component hews closely to what John Garvey, a former CUNY administrator, proposed in a 2010 piece in the GothamSchools Community section.

“The woefully small percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools is not a new development, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it,” Garvey wrote at the time. “Here’s my suggestion: The Department of Education should adopt a proportional admissions plan for the exam schools that would offer admission to the highest-scoring students from each of the neighborhoods of the city.”

City officials say they couldn’t do anything about the admissions process even if they wanted to.

“State law requires that admission to specialized high schools be based solely on an exam, and we want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code,” said Erin Hughes, a Department of Education spokeswoman, in a statement.

Hewitt contested that argument. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are named in the 1972 Hecht-Calendra Act. The other five specialized schools, which all opened under the Bloomberg administration, have been designated as specialized schools but do not have to remain that way, he said.

“The city could change its policy today,” he said. “There’s no reason why the city and the state and complainants and experts can’t come to the table and hammer out a workable, fair, just, nondiscriminatory policy. This could change as fast as there is political will.”

The change has some allies in Albany. Last year, Bronx Assemblyman Karim Camara was one of several legislators to initiate bills that would alter the Hecht-Calendra Act. Those bills didn’t make it into law last year, but Hewitt said he hoped lawmakers would try again this year when the legislative session begins in January.

Because the specialized schools contain only a tiny fraction of the seats across the city’s high schools, changing their admissions processes would affect very few students directly. But Hewitt said large numbers of students would benefit nonetheless.

“The message that this longstanding discriminatory policy sends is a very horrible one — it’s that even if you work harder than the next person and even if your grades are better than the next person, you still might not get the opportunity that that person gets,” he said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s complaint is below.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.