Diversity Debate

Cynthia Nixon on specialized schools: ‘We need them to be more racially diverse’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon met with students in Brooklyn on Thursday.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon waded into the debate about racial diversity at New York City’s most prestigious high schools Thursday, saying she generally supports a plan that aims to boost their share of black and Hispanic students.

“We need them to be more racially diverse when it comes to black and Latino students,” Nixon said of the eight specialized high schools that use a test to admit students. “And we also need more lower-income students in those schools who are at the top of their classes, but may not have had the supports that would have propelled them into just testing in.”

When asked whether, as governor, she would sign the bill that would remove the required single admissions test, a key element of the city’s plan, Nixon repeatedly said, “I think it’s a start.” (A campaign spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, later said that Nixon would sign it if it passed.)

The comments are the most specific Nixon has made about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan, announced this week in Chalkbeat, to increase diversity at the city’s top high schools, where collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic and most students are Asian. The plan has won support from advocates who have long been pushing for changes but sparked fierce pushback from the schools’ alumni associations and some Asian-American community groups.

And while Nixon has long advocated for various education causes, she weighed in Thursday for the first time since launching her gubernatorial bid on the city’s broader school admissions policies.

Asked about schools that screen for admissions, which include schools that Nixon and at least one of her children attended, she said there’s more to be done to make sure schools are more racially representative of the city.

“We need to make sure that all students have access and that every school looks much more like a diversity of New York than it does right now,” she said, following a discussion with students about the school-to-prison pipeline.

But Nixon also implied that screening based on academic ability is typical of public school admissions. “Middle schools and high schools do that, generally speaking,” she said.

In fact, just 28 percent of schools citywide screen students based on grades, attendance, state test scores, and other factors, a system that contributes to extreme racial and academic segregation.

Nixon also weighed in on mayoral control of New York City’s schools, which requires approval of the state legislature. De Blasio has had to fight for that power repeatedly in Albany, and his control currently extends to June 2019, which means the debate will be live again this coming school year.

“I am tired of mayoral control coming up again and again and again. I think that it’s an issue that should be settled,” Nixon said.

Permanently? “I think so,” she responded.

New Possibilities

Inside a Bronx middle school where students rarely apply to attend specialized high schools

Parents and staff at New Venture discuss academics, mental health and how to improve school culture.

Shaydra Spand wants the very best for her daughter, Reniah. But it has never crossed her mind to one day send the sixth grader to one of New York City’s specialized high schools.

“If it means her doing better … Oh yeah, I would send her,” said Spand, during a parent workshop at her daughter’s school, New Venture School, in the Bronx. “But wait, where are they?”

Lately the city has been swallowed by a contentious debate over plans to admit more black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, which reliably send graduates on to Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers. Considered crown jewels of the education system, the schools are overwhelmingly white and Asian.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is lobbying the state legislature to scrap the admissions test that stands as the sole criteria for entry, and instead allow all students who are in the top 7 percent of their school and the top 25 percent citywide to apply specialized high schools, ranked based on a combination of test scores and grades.

The proposal has sparked fierce backlash from opponents who say the test helps maintain rigorous academic standards at the schools. But if the plan becomes a reality, schools such as New Venture theoretically have the most to gain. Last year, just seven out of the 352 students at New Venture took the SHSAT to gain entry into one of the city’s eight elite high schools — among the lowest number of test takers of any middle school in the city. And according to New Venture’s principal, Dominic Cipollone, no students have gone to specialized high schools during his 14-year tenure.

But the proposal would do little to solve the most entrenched challenges that have kept students from schools such as New Venture out of specialized high schools for so long. Staff members say cramming for tests and landing seats at top schools have taken a backseat to life’s other difficulties — a hurdle city officials will have to face if the mayor’s plan goes into effect.

“I have kids who haven’t eaten, or who don’t have coats, or who saw someone get shot, and I can’t get that kid into the top 7 percent because he’s just focused on, damn I just need to get through this day,” said English teacher Charles Ebea. “He just wants to go home.”

At New Venture, which has a 94.3 percent poverty rate, students have performed far below the citywide average on state tests in recent years. In 2017, New Venture scored in the bottom 4 percent of schools citywide in state math tests and the bottom 5 percent in English.

In late 2014, the de Blasio administration designated it as one of a dozen Renewal Schools, a program designed to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools instead of closing them by offering extra services like after school programs and longer school days.  

The Renewal Program, though, has not shown great strides at struggling schools, and the majority of New Venture students still aren’t proficient in English and math. But the percentage of 7th grade students who scored proficient or above on English state tests rose from 0.9 percent in 2014 to 12.6 percent in 2017 and from 4.3 percent to 5.9 percent in math in the same time period.

With so many students struggling to pass state tests, it’s possible that the proposed admissions changes for specialized high schools could still leave some New Venture students out. The city’s plan would require students to be at the top of their class — but also within the top 25 percent of all students citywide, based on a combination of report card grades and test scores.

Improving test scores is a slow process, Cipollone admits, and he believes that this year the results of their heavy lifting will show.

“I’m confident in the growth we are seeing in preliminary stages, that we really won’t know until we actually see those scores come out,” he said. “But we just feel that this is the year when we will see some significant improvements.”

Cipollone points out that not all of his students received the support that they needed in elementary school and entered the school already far behind peers, like some of his sixth graders who came into New Venture unable to read.

“When you’re with kids who need a lot of remediation, along with that remediation comes a lot of social and emotional support they need, and that’s where teacher frustration comes in because it’s harder,” said Cipollone.

Despite its challenges, New Venture does have high-achievers and parents who are engaged. Last week, Children’s Aid, the non-profit group that is the school’s community partner under the Renewal program, hosted an event for parents to voice concerns about the school and to talk to teachers and other community members. During a workshop about Academics and Enrichment, seventh grade teacher Sharice Woodley-Bender responded to a parent who was concerned that his son wasn’t being challenged enough.

“We have different levels,” explained Woodley-Bender. “So we have the ones up here ‘boing boing boing!’ going really quickly. We’ve got the ones in the middle, they move along, and then we have the ones down here. The difference is so large it’s hard to keep everybody. So we gotta have roller skates on, and go from place to place checking on people. It’s hard.”

What would make their job “100 percent easier,” says ELA coach Celeste Smith, is if even more parents were involved.

“In the past three years all of those saying they wanted to be PTA president end up actually leaving the position, they moved away or they were no longer qualified because they didn’t have children who went here,” said Smith. “We want this to be a place your children want to be. But we also want to have your voice in the decisions that happen with your kids.”

Ebea is concerned that some students may be leery to apply to a specialized school because of the vast difference in demographics. New Venture is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, and just 1 percent white and 1 percent Asian. At the specialized schools, collectively about 10 percent of current students are black or Hispanic.

“If I’m a high performing minority student, black or Hispanic, and I go to a school that’s mostly Asian or white, and just a few other people look like me, I’m probably not going to achieve the same way. I might be able to, but if I’ve only gone to school with mostly black or Hispanic kids and now I’m in a building with a whole different group, I might feel less,” said Ebea. “What is that going to do for the self esteem of kids? Could they handle that or would they feel isolated?”

This means that the New Venture School would have to prepare its students to not only perform at a high level but feel incredibly confident in themselves.

“Before our students apply, we have to be making sure they understand the culture at these schools and that they don’t feel like outsiders,” said Cipollone. “You earned this spot, you have a right to be here, and you shouldn’t feel less than because you look different.”

The Department of Education says it has done targeted outreach about specialized schools in the form of phone calls, postcards and community events in 15 districts, including New Venture’s. 10 of the targeted districts are ones in which 50 or less students received admission offers to specialized high schools this year.

“We will work with principals and superintendents to ensure students are aware of the opportunities at all of our high schools – including specialized high schools – and to meet the needs of all students,” said Education Department spokesperson Will Mantell.

But a more simple concern for parents is how they would get their children to schools that are more than 30 minutes away. Dilcia Blanco, whose son Derek is in 6th grade at New Venture, had to tell her daughter Stacey, who was applying to schools this year, that getting her to Manhattan from the Bronx every day just wasn’t possible.

“At the high school she liked they start around 8, so she has to leave home around 6 and go home around 6:30? And take the bus and the train? I said no, Stacey, maybe it’s better to just go to a high school in this area,” said Blanco.

Despite believing that more of his students deserve spots at these schools, Cipollone contends that doing well on a single test shouldn’t be the only measure of academic success. Students from New Venture go on to non-selective schools like Harry S. Truman High School and Eximius College Preparatory Academy, which both had four-year graduation rates higher than the citywide average in 2017. However, the percentage of students who graduated college ready from each was lower, according to CUNY’s standards for avoiding remedial classes.

The popular visual and performing arts program at New Venture is also one of the reasons why more students at the school decide to put energy into auditioning for spots at arts-based high schools.

“It’s our job to identify where they are, what their needs are, and also what their gifts are,” Cipollone said “The testing doesn’t tell the full story of our school.”

sorting the students

How one Manhattan district has preserved its own set of elite high schools

Emmanuel Ruiz stands outside near his high school.

When Emmanuel Ruiz cracked open the city’s 600-page high school directory, he was in search of a school with a strong academic track where he could pursue math and technology. After careful consideration, the promising Brooklyn student selected his 12 favorites.

But when he handed the list to his advisor at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics — a program for students interested in becoming scientists, engineers, and computer scientists — she immediately spotted a problem.

One of the schools on Ruiz’s list was Eleanor Roosevelt, which almost exclusively enrolls residents from Manhattan’s District 2, one of the most affluent school districts in the city. Ruiz, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, had virtually no shot at attending because of where he lived.

“I was very confused and angry because I was trying to put down as many good schools as possible,” said Ruiz, who is now a sophomore at Manhattan Village Academy. “I thought, now it’s going to be hard to find another school that I really like.”

A charged debate about New York City’s elite specialized high schools, which admit students based on a single test and enroll a low share of black and Hispanic students, has blown open in recent days after Mayor de Blasio proposed changes to their admissions process. But the laser focus on these eight schools leaves out hundreds of other schools and programs across the system whose policies also segregate students by race and class.

The exclusivity starts in elementary school, with gifted and talented programs, and runs through middle school, with highly selective screened programs. By the time students get to high school, about one third of the city’s more than 400 high schools pick students based on grades, test scores, interviews, auditions, or other factors.

But critics say the rule Ruiz encountered in Manhattan’s District 2 is particularly frustrating because it excludes large swaths of students, even if they have excellent academic records. The district, which spans the wealthy neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, SoHo, and TriBeCa, is home to six sought-after and highly selective high schools, all of which have near-perfect graduation rates.

But while most of the schools receive thousands of applicants a year, they give preference to students who live or attend school inside the relatively affluent district, meaning the most popular options rarely have room for students from surrounding, less wealthy neighborhoods. For instance, at Eleanor Roosevelt, 100 percent of offers last year went to students or residents from District 2 and at Baruch, 98 percent of offers did. The rule, critics say, seriously undermines the idea that students can apply to any high school in the city regardless of their ZIP code.

This set of schools is also significantly more likely to exclude black, Hispanic, and poor students. At schools with the District 2 admissions preference that are highly selective, 26 percent of students are black or Hispanic compared to 47 percent in the district as a whole and 67 percent citywide. Similarly, only 41 percent of students at these schools live in poverty compared to 74 percent of overall city students.


The six schools included were Baruch College Campus High School, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies, N.Y.C. Museum School, Millennium High School and School of the Future. Millennium High School offers priority to students who live or attend school south of East Houston or West Houston Street. School of the Future offers priority to continuing 8th graders and then to District 2 students or residents. (Graphics by Sam Park)


Supporters of District 2’s geographic priority argue that different types of geographic priorities exist in communities across the city because it is important to have neighborhood schools. Others say that removing the priority status would benefit very few students and fail to put a true dent in a deeply segregated school system but it would anger a group of well-connected middle-class parents. These advocates say the real cause of the unequal system is not a single priority status at the six schools, but rather allowing schools to select students by ability in the first place.

But the policy is confounding to those who work with high-achieving students from low-income areas in other parts of the city.

“It seems illogical that a district that already has such a wealth of resources is preventing students from lower-income areas from getting into these great high schools,” said Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, Ruiz’s advisor at BEAM. “From a big picture, what’s best for all children perspective, this doesn’t make any sense.”


The geographic priority in District 2, experts say, grew out of an attempt by officials to attract more middle-class families to public schools after years of decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These families, officials reasoned, could draw resources into a system badly in need of a turnaround. In order to attract them, officials in District 2 started creating new alternative school options, said Jacqueline Ancess, who was the director of educational options in District 2 at the time and now runs a research center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Middle-class families in the public school system were at a low and this definitely brought more middle-class families into the schools,” Ancess said.

Throughout the 90s, more middle-class or affluent families started to enroll their children in Manhattan’s public schools. But when they reached high school, these families hit a snag: there were not enough high-quality options in the district, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of the school review site InsideSchools.

“There was a general sense that the high schools that were controlled by central were not offering kids the chance for a college prep curriculum and honestly weren’t even safe at the time,” Hemphill said.

The community school board in District 2 decided to take matters into its own hands and create high schools for students in the district.

One such school was Eleanor Roosevelt, which Upper East Side parents and then city councilmember Eva Moskowitz, now the CEO of Success Academy charter network pushed for. The debate was racially charged even back in 2001 when the school was approved. Upper East Side parents wanted an even more restrictive school zone that would have included families that lived east of Central Park between 59th and 96th streets. But officials feared that, since the population in those neighborhoods was overwhelmingly white, the plan would be challenged by civil rights groups, according to a New York Times article.

Not long after, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to turn the entire high school admissions system on its head. In 2003, the administration decided students would no longer have access to a neighborhood high school they could attend by default. Instead, all students would apply to up to 12 schools and get matched to one.

But beneath this system of school choice, the city preserved a series of admissions rules that allowed students in certain areas of the city to have a leg up in admissions at schools in their neighborhoods. Some gave preference to students who lived in boroughs, districts, or even within particular streets.

Many of those priorities have survived until today — including preference in District 2. By the city’s count, there are 50 high schools that prioritize in-district students, a number that includes schools that specify students must live within certain streets. There are also an additional 28 zoned schools that set aside some seats for students from surrounding neighborhoods. These schools vary dramatically in selectivity and popularity.

Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for the education department during the Bloomberg era, said that it wasn’t a top priority to get rid of geographic preferences when Bloomberg revamped high school admissions. That’s partially because their model of school change required keeping middle-class families in the schools, he said.

“Their goal was to retain the middle class and this was their strategy for doing it,” he said. “I think where we erred was that we created an even more segregated school system.”


Years later, the education department has still not changed its stance on District 2 priority or many other geographic priorities, though officials did not rule out changes in the future.

“School communities should be inclusive learning environments that are representative of New York City, and we’re continuing to look at ways to make the high school admissions process fairer for all families in District 2 and across the City,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen.

Education department officials also noted that the schools have historically prioritized in-district students because there are no zoned high schools in Manhattan.

Even the principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Dimitri Saliani, seems open to the discussion about how to change admissions in the city.

“I am in full support for the continued conversation of how we can address important issues related to admissions,” Saliani wrote to Chalkbeat in an email.

Several advocates and parents say that while the city’s high school admissions system needs to be overhauled, eliminating District 2 priority is not the way to do it. For instance, Nadelstern argues that tackling District 2 priority early on in a broader plan to desegregate schools could backfire and cause middle-class parents to pull their children from the public school system.

“What you can’t do in a city like New York is throw down the gauntlet in front of a politically powerful, organized parent group and expect to retain middle-class participation in the public schools,” Nadelstern said.

Other critics argue that geographic priority like that in District 2 isn’t the largest culprit in the stratified school system — sorting students by ability is. At many of these schools, even with the priority given in the district, students need near-perfect grades and test scores to earn admission. Since selective admission tends to favor affluent white students, nothing major can change until this “screening” mechanism is tackled, said Shino Tanikawa, vice president of the District 2 Community Education Council.

Eric Goldberg, another member of District 2’s Community Education Council, who is also the parent of a seventh-grade student, said he understands the benefits of having some neighborhood high schools, including having a community hub and lessening the travel burden for students. Goldberg agrees with Tanikawa that changing admissions at this small number of schools is not likely to make a major dent in school diversity without an overhaul of other admissions criteria.

“If we’re looking at this through a lens of diversity and integration,” Goldberg said, “I’m confident that we’re not looking in the right place.”

But to advocates and those who work with students in areas like the Bronx and Brooklyn — where many would have a short commute to some of the most coveted schools but can’t get accepted due to the geographic rule these explanations ring hollow. In a system built on school choice, giving students from every neighborhood a chance to attend the best schools in the city seems like a no-brainer to Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Frumkin said. “If you’re creating a truly equitable process, you can’t say, ‘Well, we’re creating a choice process and allowing families to apply anywhere they want … but by the way, we’re not truly allowing families to do that.”

In the meantime, students like Ruiz are being blocked from the schools based on their home ZIP code. Before he knew about the rule, Ruiz said he assumed that the population of a school uptown in Manhattan would be different than where he lives. But the admissions process made him feel like he wasn’t welcome there, he said.

“I’m just not fit to go to that school,” he said he realized. “It did come across as very unfair. I don’t think it should be like that.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Shino Tanikawa is the vice president, not the president, of the District 2 Community Education Council.