What’s happened in the year since Mayor Bill de Blasio called for overhauling NYC’s specialized high school admissions

It was a Sunday morning, but the gym at J.H.S. 292 in East New York was packed.

At the center of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out an ambitious plan to integrate New York City’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

The mayor said the time was right. Fellow Democrats were poised to take control of the legislature, which would ultimately need to approve the most consequential changes proposed. Plus, de Blasio had appointed a new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, who had proven an eager champion of diversity issues.

“The stars have now aligned,” the mayor said. “The moment’s right for it.”

Almost exactly a year after that hopeful declaration, not much has changed beyond the conversation. Even that movement is notable: For years, integration seemed off the policy table, and now de Blasio can point to a tangible proposal as he launches a presidential bid touting his progressive credentials. But actual progress is stalled, and in the meantime, the mayor’s opponents have dug in even deeper.

The integration fight de Blasio launched last June lies largely outside of his control. Admissions methods for the three largest specialized high schools are enshrined in state law, but the legislature has proven apathetic or openly hostile to the mayor’s plan. The more modest elements of de Blasio’s proposal have triggered a legal challenge, and deep-pocketed donors have galvanized opposition. Along the way, the debate has exposed thorny issues about where Asian students stand in the city’s integration plans.

Even natural allies of reform are weary. Specialized high schools educate just a tiny fraction of New York City students, but the school system here is one of the most segregated in the country. Some parents would rather see the city double-down on more widespread efforts to improve schools for black and Hispanic students, while integration advocates say the controversy has diverted time and attention away from systemic reforms that the mayor has the power to enact himself.

“The most pessimistic side of me thinks they were insidious,” Matt Gonzales, a school integration activist with Appleseed, said of the mayor’s plans. “The most optimistic side of me thinks it was bad politics. But either way, here we are.”

Others see the battle creating its own momentum for change, however small. After the latest round of admissions offers data showed only seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant, the most competitive of the specialized high schools, state senators called for community forums and the Assembly also hosted a hearing. Slowly, a diversity advisory group appointed by the mayor has begun to suggest other steps the city could take to start unraveling segregation on a larger scale. And on the ground, parents say they have newfound support from city officials for grassroots integration plans.

“Mayor de Blasio has spent the last year fighting to end the outdated practice of letting a single test on a single day dictate a kid’s future. There’s no other system like it in the country,” Will Baskin- Gerwitz, a spokesman for the mayor, wrote in an email. “He won’t give up the fight until we have a more equitable system.”

New York City’s specialized high schools are heralded as some of the most desirable, but they enroll only 10% black and Hispanic students, who make up more than two-thirds of enrollment citywide. For eight of the nine schools, admission is determined by a single exam — the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. There is no set entrance score, but rather, students are admitted in rank order starting with those with the highest scores.

De Blasio’s vision remains two-fold. The first part, already being enacted, is a dramatic expansion of the Discovery program. That program offers admission to students who scored just below the entrance exam cutoff if they attend summer courses. Eventually, the plan calls for 20% of seats to be filled through Discovery. The city has also changed who qualifies Discovery so students will come from schools that are economically disadvantaged. On its own, those changes are expected to boost black and Hispanic enrollment only by seven percentage points.

The second phase of his plan, which could raise black and Hispanic enrollment as much as 45%, has proved far more controversial: the elimination of the admissions test, which would require approval from the legislature. In its place, de Blasio wants to admit the top 7% of students from each middle school.

Despite public polling suggesting most New Yorkers would welcome an admissions overhaul, opposition has been particularly well organized and funded. The city’s expansion and tweaks of Discovery sparked a lawsuit from Asian families, represented by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, who claim their children are being discriminated against — though a judge has made a preliminary ruling against the plaintiffs.

Specialized-high-school alumni groups and advocacy organizations have held countless public demonstrations and are spending heavily to save the test. Allies include Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Clinique Laboratories and a graduate of the specialized high school Bronx Science, and former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. Both are contributing to a new coalition called Education Equity, which plans to spend at least $150,000 on lobbying. The group argues the city should focus on expanded test prep and access to gifted and talented programs, which many claim are a pipeline into the specialized schools.

“What we’re seeing now is the direct results of not the inability and lack of capacity of our children — it is the lack of investment by the Department of Education,” said Kirsten John Foy, a minister and Brooklyn Tech alumnus who is heading the group’s campaign.

The mayor’s proposal has been fought particularly fiercely by Asian parents. More than 60% of specialized high school students are Asian, compared with 16% citywide. Most of the Asian students who get accepted come from low-income families.

For many of those families, the schools are considered make-or-break for launching their children into top colleges, and later, high-powered careers (though research paints a more complicated picture.) Many others have taken issue with the fact that the mayor didn’t engage with the Asian community before rolling out his plan. Sen. John Liu, the chair of the New York City education committee, has charged that exclusion was deliberate, leading him to blast the mayor’s plan as “racist.”

Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor who has spent much of his career studying equity issues, said the pushback is to be expected, partly because the mayor has picked the wrong battle.  

“I think many in the Asian community have seen this as a loss, and they’re going to fight back,” Noguera said. “The issue is access to good schools, and there is simply not enough of them in New York City.”

Lawmakers who hold the fate of de Blasio’s most consequential proposal have largely deflected. Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman has sponsored two bills: one that would create a pre-SHSAT test for sixth graders, and another that would require the education department to study which students are likely to pass the specialized high schools exam. Assemblywoman Latrice Walker has proposed an 18-person commission to investigate “diversity initiatives” at specialized high schools.

Walker, who went to Brooklyn Tech, said it was wrong to characterize the ongoing debate as an integration issue, asserting that integration was “a response to a reign of terror through the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws” in the 1960s.

“It is not what we’re dealing with right now,” she said. “The principles we’re dealing with are very different.”

While legislation has been stuck, de Blasio has appeared far more passive on other possible integration measures.

Some are hoping the city will tackle competitive admissions standards called “screens,” just like District 15 in Brooklyn recently did. Initial results suggest the district, which includes well-heeled neighborhoods such as Park Slope and working class enclaves such as Sunset Park, could see significant progress towards integration next year. Others would like to see an overhaul of gifted and talented programs which, like the specialized high schools, enroll mostly white and Asian students and generally admit students based on a single test.

Any of those changes are likely to ignite opposition just as intense as the specialized high schools battle. Still, Sophie Mode, a high school sophomore and an advocate with the student-led group Teens Take Charge, said she is frustrated with the slow pace of change and the fixation on the elite schools.

“We’ve waited for too long,” she said. “They’re only eight out of over 400 high schools. And we need to fix all of them.”

While the debate over the specialized high schools has raged, NeQuan McLean says districts like his are “focused on trying to survive.” McLean is a parent leader in Brooklyn’s District 16, which serves almost exclusively black and Hispanic children from low-income families. He said his district has been strangled by competition from charter schools, a lack of resources inside schools, and uneven instruction and leadership. Those are the issues he’d like to see the city focus on, calling the specialized high schools “not the priority.”

“We hear people say, ‘more G&T, more test prep.’ No, that’s not going to help. Students need a sound, basic education,” he said.

De Blasio and Carranza have argued the city is making progress on all fronts, by dedicating a new $2 million grant to support community-driven integration plans and approving parent-created proposals in three districts. Then there’s the mayor’s broader education agenda, dubbed Equity and Excellence, which partly seeks to even out resources across schools by, for example, making sure every student has access to advanced placement courses.

Maya Wiley, one of the leaders of a diversity advisory group appointed by the mayor, said its dozens of members are working deliberately to build consensus on more integration measures. She said the process, which has dragged on for more than a year, is necessary so that whatever changes the city pursues have support to last beyond the tenure of any one mayor or chancellor. The group has already released a set of lengthy recommendations, and will soon release another focused of screens and gifted programs.

“I think it’s really important that we’re working together, even if it takes more time,” she said.

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Ronald Lauder.