At Harlem’s Columbia Secondary School, selective admissions opens old wounds — and ignites calls for change

Harlem’s Columbia Secondary School was envisioned more than a decade ago as an oasis for high-performing students, providing a rigorous option for the surrounding historically black and Hispanic neighborhoods. 

Today, the public middle and high school stands out for its diverse student body and its academic track record. Enrollment is 60% black and Hispanic, and students routinely post test scores and graduation rates that blow past city averages.

Despite that record, Columbia Secondary is at the center of a debate about what it means to be a high-performing school, and who has access to such opportunities. The fight has also opened old wounds between the Harlem community and the school’s prestigious partner and neighbor, Columbia University. 

Harlem parents say the school’s demographics do not go far enough in reflecting its immediate neighbors and are demanding changes to how students are admitted. The school’s principal counters that she’s working hard to bolster access within the confines of the New York City public school system, which is one of the most segregated in the nation, while still maintaining selective admissions standards. 

“I get the frustration,” said Miriam Nightengale, Columbia Secondary’s principal. “I feel a problem is being put on my shoulders that the system doesn’t support me in solving.” 

To get into Columbia Secondary for sixth grade, the school considers state test scores, and students must take a school-created test, have good attendance records, and live or attend elementary school in the surrounding neighborhoods. (Across the city, about a quarter of middle schools similarly set their own competitive entrance criteria.) 

The school, situated on West 123rd Street, serves more than 700 students who take classes in philosophy, conduct month-long field studies, and attend university classes at Columbia as high school students. In 2018, the graduation rate was 99%, and students have gone on to universities including Yale, MIT, and Rice. 

The school was launched as part of an official agreement with Columbia University, which has clashed infamously with Harlem residents. As the university expanded its footprint, partially through the use of eminent domain to seize homes and businesses, Columbia promised to partner with the education department to open a new middle and high school focused on math, science, and engineering. Its professors would help develop specialized curriculum, and the university would provide opportunities, such as internships and access to Columbia courses, so public school students could benefit from the Ivy League resources in their own backyard. 

At least half of enrollment would come from East Harlem’s District 4, Central and West Harlem’s District 5, and District 6, which covers Inwood and Washington Heights. Also included: the area north of 96th Street, in the Upper West Side’s District 3. 

Nightengale said the school needs to remain true to the agreement, which called for a “competitive” admissions process, specifically serving “high-performing” students, and ensuring “the highest level of education.” 

But Sanayi Canton, the president of the Community Education Council in Harlem’s District 5, said the university also pledged to boost educational outcomes for students in neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the university’s growth — areas where families have historically lacked access to high-performing schools. Those students, she argued, are being left out by the school’s competitive admissions standards. 

In District 5, a little more than a third of students reached grade-level reading expectations on state tests last year, and only 68% graduated from high school.

“How you define a high-quality school, to me, becomes another screening measure to keep kids out,” Canton said. “The reason kids in my district are not getting into Columbia Secondary is because, from the inception of the school, it really wasn’t designed for them.”

Columbia University declined to comment.

Canton said parents have been coming for years to the education council and complaining about Columbia Secondary’s admissions process. In response, the council, a parent-led body that oversees education issues in the district, established a committee to dig into what was happening. Through a public records request, members found that the school was disproportionately screening out black and Hispanic students — which is by no means unique to Columbia Secondary. Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented at selective schools across the city, recent research has found.

Columbia Secondary enrolls far more black and Hispanic students than many of the city’s competitive schools. While it’s diverse, it isn’t representative of the districts where students have priority in admissions. Fewer than half of the school’s students come from poor families, compared with more than 80% of students in District 4. Almost none are learning English as a new language, in stark contrast to District 6, where such students make up more than a quarter of enrollment. 

“Nobody’s saying they’re not a diverse school,” said Anna Minsky, a former education council member who continues to serve on the committee that has been investigating Columbia Secondary. “But I think we’re all sophisticated enough to understand that being diverse doesn’t mean the school doesn’t have practices that promote racism.”

Canton and other parent leaders want the school to drop its admissions screens or dramatically overhaul them to become more inclusive. At the very least, they’ve called for eliminating attendance and lateness as entrance criteria, echoing the calls of a citywide diversity committee. Screening for attendance and tardiness can disproportionately affect students from low-income backgrounds, such as homeless students who are more likely to miss days of school.

The school has already promised to host more information sessions to get the word out about the application process, Canton noted. Still, she doesn’t believe that’s sufficient to help District 5 students, who are overwhelmingly unable to get through the competitive admissions process.

Nightengale, Columbia Secondary’s principal, said she has met multiple times with parent leaders to examine the school’s admissions practices since taking the helm in 2011. But she’s steadfast in her belief that the school needs to maintain some kind of sorting mechanism, according to the university benefits agreement.

“If you’re serving high-performing students, you have to have some way to identify them,” Nightengale said, noting that the school does not get any information about a student’s racial or ethnic background when they rank them.

Some change is already on the way: This year, the education department has agreed to distribute admissions offers evenly across the priority districts, she said.

She has also asked the department to model what admissions demographics would look like if the school were to drop attendance and lateness from the admissions criteria, as the education council has asked. Nightengale has even considered ditching the school’s own entrance exam but is concerned that doing so will have unintended consequences by putting more weight on state test scores, which are tightly intertwined with race and class. 

“It’s not an easy process,” she said. 

Nightengale’s conviction to maintaining the school’s screens is also built from her own experience in New York City schools. 

Before joining Columbia Secondary, Nightengale helped lead a Manhattan high school where most incoming students were black and Hispanic, and many were already far below grade level. While she’s proud of the work that school did to help students catch up, she also worried about those who excelled and could have benefitted from more than the school could provide, like another Advanced Placement course to help students rack up college credits.

At Columbia Secondary, she saw an opportunity to do right by talented black and Hispanic students, who she believes can easily fall through the cracks. Others feel the same: Elected officials such as Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., have argued that those students deserve more selective programs in their neighborhoods, which are currently more likely to go without such high-performing options. 

“Those students aren’t being served elsewhere in the city,” Nightengale said. “Eliminating screening does not eliminate the fact that there are students who need teachers who can teach AP calculus, and [at many city schools] they’re not going to get them.”