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.

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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.