Hot Topic

‘How can we bring people together?’ Parents debate New York City’s plan to integrate specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
District 3 parents gathered at Booker T. Washington middle school to learn more about the city's proposal to eliminate the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools.

Parents gathered at a middle school on the Upper West Side on Tuesday night and alternately applauded or booed as they sought to learn more about a controversial plan to overhaul how students are admitted to the city’s coveted but segregated specialized high schools.

Cheers went up when the specialized high school admissions test was described by an Asian advocate as unbiased — and again when a black man stood up to forcefully say that integrated schools benefit everyone.

The forum was organized by the Booker T. Washington middle school PTA, where parents took it into their own hands to try to spread more information about the city’s hotly debated integration plan. The forum, which packed the school auditorium, served as another reminder of the challenges ahead as the city looks to the state legislature to approve the proposed changes.

“We just felt the community was hungry for information,” said Chris Giordano, co-president of the parent association.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for the elimination of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria for the schools and is often blamed for segregation there. Just 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, while those students make up almost 70 percent of enrollment citywide. 

His plan faces a steep climb. On Tuesday, John Liu, a Democrat from Queens who has said he supports maintaining the SHSAT, was appointed head of the state Senate’s New York City education subcommittee.

Absent from the forum were education department or city leaders who could answer parents’ questions. Officials had already visited the district in October, and at a meeting in neighboring District 2 last week, they met a mostly hostile crowd.

At Booker T., organizers said they wanted a more measured meeting, with multiple viewpoints elevated. They invited a panel of speakers and mostly took pre-selected questions. Though many in the crowd were parents from the school community, others were activists on either side of the long-running debate over the SHSAT.

Booker T. has served as a pipeline to the specialized high schools — but that would change if the overhaul is approved. Under the mayor’s plan, the top 7 percent of students at each middle school would be offered admission to specialized high schools; Last year, more than half of Booker T. graduates gained a specialized high school seat.

“Equity does mean that those who have more have to give up something. That’s what equity is,” said Patrick Joseph, senior education policy analyst for the Manhattan borough president, who has supported integration efforts but not the mayor’s plan. Joseph’s comments prompted murmurs from the crowd, and someone shouted, “No!”

Some of the parents who gathered called for an entirely different set of high school reforms: pushing for an expansion of specialized high schools, for example, or the elimination of a priority in neighboring District 2 that gives those residents first dibs at some of the city’s most sought-after schools.

“We need more excellent schools,” said Sharon Just, a parent in District 3.

The admissions changes have prompted fierce backlash among many in the Asian community; currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian, while those students make up just 16 percent of enrollment citywide. David Lee, a specialized high school graduate and staunch advocate for keeping the admissions test in place, described the city’s changes as “pitting minorities against minorities.” His comment earned applause from the mostly white and Asian audience. (Enrollment at Booker T. is 58 percent white.)

The tone struck Everett Stembridge, a black integration advocate, who was the last speaker of the night, as ominous for diversity efforts.

“How can we bring people together? How can we focus on the benefits of integration?” he asked. “It’s going to take multicultural leadership, and I don’t see it happening.”


New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.