Diversity Matters

Debate over high school admissions test divides City Council

Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations President Larry Cary rallies a crowd of alumni and parents of specialized high school students outside City Hall.

Deep divisions emerged at a City Council hearing Thursday on school diversity, as policymakers debated the merits of city’s specialized high school admissions test and city officials promised to consider a variety of enrollment policy changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants state lawmakers to support a bill that would allow the three oldest specialized high schools to consider multiple criteria when admitting students, something he, Chancellor Fariña, and civil rights advocates say could increase diversity at those schools, where black and Hispanic enrollment has steadily fallen in recent years. Only 11 percent of the offers to the eight schools went to black and Hispanic students this spring.

“It has become the norm throughout our education system, our higher education system, that we look to multiple criteria for admissions to these venerated institutions,” Councilman Stephen Levin, of Brooklyn, said during the hearing. “To me, this seems like an antiquated system that reduced our student to one test on one day.”

But supporters of current system, from within and outside the council, point to the test as method that has worked successfully for generations. They point out that many of the city’s screened high schools, which look at factors like attendance and school grades when making admissions decisions, have a higher percentage of white students than the specialized schools.

“The test is not discriminatory,” Queens City Councilman Peter Koo said during the hearing. “If it’s discriminatory, how is it that second generation of immigrants can get in, people from India and the Caribbean? They have dark skin.”

“If I was trying to get into a multiple-criteria school I would not have gotten in,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Tech alumnus who is black. “The only way I got in was through testing.”

The City Council has no authority to make admissions policy changes. But the discussion activated alumni and parents of students at the schools, and dozens converged on the City Hall for Thursday’s meeting. Retaining the exam and additional diversity don’t need to be mutually exclusive, they said.

“Fundamentally, the test reflects the failure of New York City School system,” President of the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations Larry Cary told reporters assembled outside City Hall on Thursday. His organization sent a five-page letter Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito earlier this month urging her to vote ‘no’ on the City Council’s resolution in support of the state bill.

The fact that few black and Hispanic students are winning spots based on the test “reflects racism and it reflects the lack of preparation the school system give the kids in the black and Hispanic community,” Cary added.

The admissions policies at Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant high schools were enshrined in state law in 1971. The authority to change the admissions policy at the other five specialized high schools that rely on the specialized test lies with the city, though the Department of Education has not said it will make any moves without state support for changing the policies at the other three schools.

What city officials did say Thursday is that they are working to expand the number of students taking the specialized high school exam by asking all middle school guidance counselors to push the top 15 percent of their students to sign up for the SHSAT. Providing more and better access to test preparation, City Council members, the alumni coalition, and city officials agreed, should be a priority whether the admissions policy changes or not.

But a two-year tutoring program aimed specifically at preparing low-income students for the exam has gotten smaller. Ursulina Ramirez, the Chancellor’s chief of staff, said during her testimony that the program, called DREAM Specialized High School Institute, has been hamstrung by a lack of funding. Eight hundred students enrolled in DREAM when it launched in 2012, but only 450 slots were funded this year even though more than 6,000 students qualified.

“While we would like to expand the program to meet the demand, we are limited by funding constraints,” Ramirez said.

Department of Education officials also said they had trouble recruiting students for the program in the South Bronx, central Harlem and central Brooklyn, where students often have to care for younger siblings or problems at home that interfere with attendance.

“There are issues getting information out to students who qualify and keeping them enrolled in the test prep,” said Ainsley Rudolfo, executive director of program and partnerships at the Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access. “Life has been getting in the way.”

The hearing also addressed broader issues of diversity in the city’s schools, including a bill that would require the city to release more information about school-level diversity and another that would require the city to “prioritize” diversity in its admissions policies, and when it creates new schools or rezones schools.

Department officials said the chancellor was committed to diversity and would support the resolution requiring annual diversity reports.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.