5 step plan

If Carranza wants to take on screening in New York City, here are 5 things he could do

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

Tracking is pervasive in New York City from kindergarten through high school, with 28 percent of all schools sorting students based on grades, test scores and other factors.

That’s why Chancellor Richard Carranza’s comment that screening is “antithetical” to the mission of public schools was so surprising. But the question is, what can he do to change the system?

Any action will be contentious and difficult. On the one hand, advocates argue that screening creates divisions along racial and socioeconomic lines. However, others say it has produced some of the most popular, even iconic schools in the city and helps keep middle class families in the public school system.

If Carranza is serious about tackling problems with screening, here’s a list of five areas he could tackle.

1.) Eliminate District 2 priority

New York City’s high school admissions process is based on the idea that students can apply to any school in the city, regardless of their zip codes. But one of the wealthiest school districts in the city has essentially cordoned off certain schools for students who live within the district’s boundaries

District 2, which encompasses the Upper East Side and downtown Manhattan, is home to some of the most popular high schools in the city, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch College Campus High School and N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

These schools have near-perfect graduation rates, and thousands of students rank them as one of their top 12 schools each year. However, they are so competitive it is nearly impossible for students outside of the district to snag a seat.

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, said it’s heartbreaking to tell students that the rules effectively prevent them from attending a great school.

“I have to sit with kids in the Bronx who are more than qualified for Eleanor Roosevelt and I have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t get into that school. It’s impossible,’” Frumkin said.

These schools enroll a disproportionately low share of black and Hispanic students. For instance, 15.5 percent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s student body is comprised of black and Hispanic students. Citywide, about 67 percent of students are black and Hispanic.

2.) Change the admissions rules at five specialized high schools

At the red-hot center of this fight are eight elite high schools that admit students based on a single test. These schools have drawn intense scrutiny after only about 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students this year.

The city’s official position has long been that admissions at specialized high schools are codified in state law. But in fact, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are written into state law. Experts say the city could change admissions at the remaining five schools with a vote from the city’s school oversight board.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said he will “revisit” the subject. Carranza has also seemed receptive to changes, saying that he is not in favor of single-test admissions.

Without a single test, the city could pick new admissions methods that would likely lead to a more diverse student body. They could select the top-performing students at middle schools across the city, or admit students based on factors such as grades and attendance.

3.) Create one common application for all screened schools

Since New York City’s screened schools have latitude to craft their own admissions criteria, students may have to submit test scores, grades, examples of their work, and attendance records. Or they may have to sit for tests at the schools, interviews, write essays, or complete artistic auditions.

The set of requirements is dizzying and disadvantages students without the time and savvy to  navigate the system. Those learning English might find it difficult to navigate school websites. The High School Directory, a large book of school options intended to help students sort through admissions requirements, has historically left out information. Some of the open houses that explain this information are nearly impossible to get into and affluent families can pay for a service that tells them when to be near a computer to sign up.

Additionally, fulfilling some of these requirements is easier for families preparing years in advance. For instance, one of the city’s most prestigious schools, Beacon High School, asks students to submit a sample of their work. However, that is only possible if students know in advance to save their best work. Many parents from more affluent areas of the city start preparing for high school admissions early — sometimes in elementary school.

If the city instituted one, centralized set of admissions requirements for screened schools, the process would be simpler to navigate. That may help students from low-income backgrounds who have difficulty sorting through the process now.

City officials are aware that applying to high school can be difficult for families. Officials have tried to tackle the problem by providing more information to students and parents. For instance, they launched a tool that helps students search information about schools and provide more translated copies of the High School Directory. They also promised to improve access to open houses.

4.) Reduce the share of screened schools throughout the system

Advocates who believe any screening mechanisms, including test scores, attendance rates, or auditions, are inherently biased, say the city should either eliminate screening or seriously reduce the share of schools allowed to pick their students.

Nearly a third of high schools in New York City today have some screen for academic success or artistic talent — but it wasn’t always that way. During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the share of screened schools shot up around the city. In 2002, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools have multiple programs.)

Further sorting takes place far before high school. When students are as young as four they can sit for a Gifted & Talented test. These G&T programs are starkly segregated by race and class. Additionally, students are screened in one quarter of middle schools.

Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said he believes middle schools screens should be eliminated. “Especially for 9 and 10-year olds, it’s kind of ridiculous to put kids through this process,” Gonzales said. “We’re actually just screening for families and not kids.”

City officials said they are trying to eliminate the use of screens when possible, but so far have not set a target for reducing the share of screened schools in the city.

5.) Require that screened schools set aside seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Some of the city’s Gifted & Talented programs and Bard High School in Queens are already prioritizing admissions for some students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a proxy for poverty. The city could expand the number of schools doing the same.

Gonzales said it would make sense to start with a set aside program. Ultimately, he would want to see some type of “controlled choice” formula that takes a student’s background into account when assigning a school. (In this scenario, the formula could include both academic success and socioeconomic status.) But in the meantime, it might make sense to start smaller, he said.

“Whatever we do is going to have to be iterative,” Gonzales said. “Starting off with some priority system or set aside system, I think that would actually be a very good, methodical way to start tinkering with the way we do admissions.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.