First Person

It’s not about quotas: The real story behind how two Brooklyn schools have begun to diversify

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Parents and community members at a Community Education Council meeting for District 13.

The Children’s School sits only a few blocks from the Gowanus Houses public housing community in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, but in recent years served virtually none of the students who lived there. Meanwhile, in nearby Fort Greene, the Academy of Arts & Letters could only watch as the racial and economic diversity of its kindergarten class began to vanish seemingly overnight.

But last year, this started to change — and if we care about making sure New York City’s students attend schools that reflect the city’s diversity, it is important to understand how it happened.

Both of our schools have a commitment to be diverse and inclusive. Both schools’ neighborhoods have also been affected by gentrification. Growing populations of affluent parents have moved into the diverse areas of Districts 13 and 15, but clustered in a relatively small number of schools, leaving very few seats available for anyone else. We’ve seen this firsthand as a principal, teacher, and parent at these two schools.

It wasn’t that low-income families didn’t apply to our schools (which don’t have traditional zones), and it wasn’t that we didn’t do outreach. The issue was that under the system of “blind” lottery admission we were required to use, affluent families dominated the applicant pools that were many times larger than the number of available kindergarten seats. Decades of research have shown that affluent families have enormous advantages in negotiating these kinds of school-choice systems that require parent participation.

In November, the New York City Department of Education allowed our schools to participate in a pilot program for school admissions. This past winter, parents and staffs were able to do outreach with confidence that families had a real chance of admission.

That’s because these plans provide a powerful boost to the chances of admission for applicants who are traditionally disadvantaged in school-choice systems — especially low-income students and English language learners.

At both of our schools, the numbers of students in those categories who were admitted for kindergarten shot up dramatically. And by limiting the disproportionate clustering of more affluent applicants at our schools, these plans have the potential to ameliorate segregation in surrounding schools.

Now, the city is about to allow all schools to apply to make similar changes to their admissions systems. That’s great news. Until the political will for comprehensive, borough-wide desegregation strategies exists, we need to direct our attention to boosting diversity at individual schools and in community school districts where change is possible.

Discussions about plans like ours often include mention of quotas. But that’s not how the plans really work, and as they expand, it’s important that they are understood.

Essentially, these admissions plans reserve a certain percentage of seats for a separate lottery only for those priority applicant groups. Importantly, if they don’t get in through this initial lottery, priority applicants have a second chance in the general lottery open to everyone.

So the nominal number of seats we set aside for the initial lottery is not a cap on the number of priority applicants, but a floor. That percentage also isn’t our goal or our target — an idea that is sometimes confused. In fact, our enrollment goals for those students are much higher than the percentage of seats we set aside, since we want to be representative of our communities.

We won’t reach our diversity goals in the first year. These plans are not designed to immediately achieve the goals, but to create a virtuous cycle that leads to long-term change. At our schools, the existence of the plan reinvigorated our recruitment efforts over the winter, yielding more diverse applicant pools than we had in previous years. Our admissions plans then bolstered these efforts to produce even more diverse kindergarten classes.

Meanwhile, our expectation is that a more diverse student and parent body will further enhance recruitment efforts and foster an increasingly inviting school culture.

This pilot is just a modest first step toward greater school integration, of course, and there is a long way to go. We hope that next year the number of schools pushing for ways to combat our very segregated New York City schools system grows exponentially. Stringing together a series of small victories for desegregation will build momentum to make the big changes that our schools need.

There are lots of incredible public schools here in New York City, and they should be truly open to all families. The seven schools in the department’s pilot program represent some of those great schools; before the pilot they were not truly open to all families.

And now, happily, they are getting closer.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.