discovering roadblocks

Getting black and Hispanic students into specialized schools remains a challenge, even for programs designed to help

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
A high school fair at Brooklyn Technical HIgh School.

One way the city is trying to enroll more black and Hispanic students at its elite specialized high schools is by expanding a program for students who scored just below the cutoff on the entrance exam. But that program actually is helping more white and Asian students get into those schools — illustrating the challenge of boosting black and Hispanic enrollment at those most-competitive schools.

The city will expand the Discovery program, which extends admission to some students who score just below the admissions cutoff and who complete summer coursework. Officials announced the expansion as part of a larger push to increase diversity in the specialized high schools on Thursday. The existing Discovery program at Brooklyn Technical School will expand, and a new program will begin at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, the smallest of the eight schools.

Most of the students in the Discovery program, though, are not black or Hispanic. And as enrollment for summer 2016 grows — to 220 students from 120 last summer — its share of black and Hispanic students is declining. In addition, two of the top specialized schools simply choose not to participate in the program.

In 2015, just over 32 percent of students in the Discovery program were black or Hispanic. That percentage is shrinking to just over 26 percent this summer, though that represents 20 more students than last year.

Citywide, nearly 70 percent of high school students are black or Hispanic. At the eight specialized high schools next year, that number will be just 10 percent — a number that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have long said is concerning.

Department officials said that last summer, five schools offered 120 seats through the Discovery program: Brooklyn Latin, Brooklyn Tech, Staten Island Tech, Queens High School for the Sciences, and the High School for Math, Science and Engineering. Years ago, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science also participated in the Discovery program. Asked why all the schools don’t participate, city officials said state law allows schools to opt in.

A department spokeswoman said both Brooklyn Tech and American Studies are increasing the size of their incoming class to accommodate new students from the Discovery program.

New York City will spend $15 million over the next several years on several other programs meant to boost diversity at these eight schools.

This fall, the city will also administer the admissions test on a school day in five middle schools, which they said will be schools that have a large number of “high-potential students” from underrepresented communities. The Specialized High Schools Institute, or DREAM Program, will run a version this summer open to up to 500 eighth graders. The current program enrolls sixth and seventh-grade students in a 22-month curriculum to prepare for the admissions test.

In addition to DREAM, the city will partner with middle school after-school programs to offer test preparation, and dedicated outreach teams will work to increase the number of students who register for the exam.

Another initiative is aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students who accept their offers at the schools once they receive an offer. This year, 77 percent of black and Hispanic students accepted their offer, compared to 86 percent of Asian students. All eight schools will be required to develop a plan for creating “a welcoming climate” for all students.

“Our specialized high schools need to better reflect the diversity of our neighborhoods and our City while maintaining their high standards,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, “and this strong package of reforms is an important step forward.”


Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here

By the numbers

Enrollment is up in Tennessee’s largest school district for second straight year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

After several years of steady decline, Shelby County Schools is continuing an upward trend in student enrollment.

About 111,600 students attend schools in Tennessee’s largest district, up about 2 percent from last year and higher than projected enrollment, according to district numbers.

That includes about 15,300 students enrolled in charter schools overseen by the local district, who now make up about 13.5 percent, a slight uptick from last year.

The increase could signal a growing trust in public school options in Memphis and that recruitment and early registration efforts are continuing to pay off. Last year was the first year the Memphis district gained students since six suburbs exited the district to create their own school systems with about 34,000 students.

However, enrollment in the state’s district for low-performing schools dipped for the second year in a row to 10,622 students. The Achievement School District, which mostly operates in Memphis, has lost about 2,000 students since 2016 as schools have closed and money for school improvement efforts has dropped off.

Note: The numbers are taken from each district’s attendance on the 20th day of school, which leaders use to determine any staffing adjustments to match a school’s student population.

Sharon Griffin, the Achievement School District’s chief, told Chalkbeat that she focused her efforts this semester on restarting the district’s relationship with the neighborhoods its serves, and that she is hopeful to see gains in enrollment throughout the year.

“Most of our schools have met their projected enrollment, but we have one or two elementaries that are struggling,” Griffin said. “Part of that is due to the fact that new charter schools and options that have opened up in neighborhoods we’re in, where there’s not enough kids in the neighborhood.”

Five charters schools opened this year as five others — a mix of district-run and charter schools — closed.

Notably, Shelby County Schools’ charter sector is growing faster than the district. The number of Memphis students attending charter schools overseen by the district increased 5.8 percent this year, while enrollment in district-run schools increased about 2 percent. Shelby County Schools did not provide a statement or an official for comment.

Nationally, the average charter school enrollment has increased from 1 to 6 percent of students between 2000 and 2015, according to federal data. That year, Tennessee charter schools enrolled 3 percent of students.

In response, the local district has looked to charter schools for recruitment strategies in an increasingly competitive environment. Over the summer, Shelby County Schools doubled down on recruitment and registration efforts by sending officials to grocery stores, libraries, summer camps, the Memphis Zoo and community centers — and has even hosted block parties throughout the city. The district also opened its online application two months earlier than last year to encourage parents to register sooner.

Those efforts resulted in 70 percent of expected students to register for school two weeks before school, which was double from the previous year.