School diversity group: NYC should phase out gifted programs, curb selective screening in admissions

The advisory group tasked with finding new ways to integrate New York City schools is recommending the nation’s largest school system eliminate gifted programs and selective admissions at most city schools.

Those are some of the proposals unveiled Monday night by the School Diversity Advisory Group, made up of academics, students, parents, and advocates appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Earlier this year, 62 of the diversity advisory group’s 67 initial recommendations became city policy.  

Their latest recommendations take aim at admissions policies that have been seen as critical for getting white, middle-class families who might otherwise leave the city or choose private schools to enroll in public schools — and without whom integration becomes even harder. Any of the proposed changes have the potential to ignite intense pushback. The group recognizes this tension and says they believe their recommendations “thread that needle in a bold and balanced way,” the report’s authors write. 

It is now up to de Blasio — who has only reluctantly taken on desegregation and has largely avoided top-down mandates to spur more diversity in schools — to decide whether to put the recommendations into city practice.

“I thank the School Diversity Advisory Group for all their hard work to promote equity and excellence across our system, and I look forward to reviewing their recommendations,” de Blasio said in a statement to the New York Times, which first reported on the recommendations. 

Though some of the group’s proposals are sweeping, the report steers clear of one of the most explosive issues: What to do about the city’s elite specialized high schools, which enroll only about 10 percent black and Hispanic students in a system where those students make up a majority. 

Here’s what the recommendations call on the city to do:

Phase out gifted and talented programs. Replace them with “enrichment models” or non-selective magnet schools. Most gifted programs admit students in kindergarten based on a single exam that children take when they’re about 4-years-old. Enrollment is almost the reverse of citywide demographics, with mostly white and Asian students.

“Simply put, there are better ways to educate advanced learners,” the report says. 

The report calls for the admissions test to be dropped and for programs to be phased out by not enrolling any new students. Instead, the group advises that the city provide local districts with resources to create their own alternatives that avoid the kind of “rigid academic tracking” that can lead to internally segregated schools.

“I think the local context is important to decide what type of enrichment model is needed for which type of neighborhood,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the non-profit New York Appleseed and a member of the advisory group.   

The city has opened some gifted programs that don’t start until third grade, with admissions based on a mix of criteria including teacher recommendations and report card grades. Those programs are significantly more diverse than test-based programs.  

Curb the use of competitive middle school “screens” like grades and attendance. About 37 percent of middle school programs in the city screen students using selective admissions criteria. The report calls for the elimination of “exclusionary” admissions criteria, including grades, test scores, auditions, interviews, behavior, lateness, and attendance. 

One school district, District 15 in Brooklyn, recently moved to completely eliminate screening and instead use a lottery model. In District 3 in Manhattan, middle schools give priority to certain students in the hopes of creating more academic and racial diversity, though schools there are still allowed to set their own admissions criteria. 

The report says local communities should be supported in creating their own district-wide plans and allows room for screens that would help create more diversity, rather than exclude students.  

Put in place moratorium on new screened high schools. In New York City, students must apply to high schools, and schools select students based on their own admissions criteria. In theory, the choice system could open possibilities for integration by allowing students to travel out of their segregated neighborhoods. But many blame the widespread practice of screening for driving segregation. (The education department has already said the city is not interested in opening new screened programs.) 

Instead, high schools should devise admissions methods that ensure they are “reflective of their boroughs’ racial and socio-economic demographics” the report states. The advisory group does not say what those practices should be. It’s unclear why the group chose to focus on the borough average, when high school admissions are open to students citywide. 

Stop using attendance, lateness, and geographic zones to screen for high school admission. It’s common for schools to count absences and tardiness against admission, but those measures can also correlate with a student’s economic disadvantage. For example, homeless students tend to miss far more days of school than their peers with stable housing, and may be prone to showing up late because they’re traveling long distances from shelters. 

Eliminating admissions priorities based on where students live would have a big impact on schools in Manhattan’s District 2, one of the whitest and wealthiest areas of the city which includes the Upper East Side. Though the high school process is supposed to open up opportunities regardless of zip code, District 2 has managed to essentially preserve its own set of schools just for residents. One of the area’s most sought-after high schools, Eleanor Roosevelt, is about 66% white. 

The group’s recommendations fall short of explicitly calling for the elimination of screens like test scores. But the members call on the education department to consider a proposal from the advocacy group Teens Take Charge which would integrate schools based on students’ academic performance, saying the city should “conduct analysis and modeling to fully understand its impact.”

“If the policy is found to be consistent with SDAG’s goals, we support its adoption and implementation,” the report notes, using an acronym to refer to the group. 

Redraw school district lines. New York City’s vast school system is broken up into 32 smaller districts, and their demographics can vary greatly. Take for example District 3 in Manhattan, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, and is about a third white. The district abuts District 5 in Harlem, which is less than 6% white. Across the city, the student poverty rate can range across districts from more than 91%, to about 50%. 

The group calls on the city to reconsider those dividing lines “to support the long-term goal of having all schools reflect the city population.”

Notably absent: specialized high schools. The report steers clear of the explosive debate around integrating the city’s most prestigious high schools. Ultimately, admission to eight of the specialized schools, which include Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, is governed by the state legislature. De Blasio ignited a firestorm last summer by launching a lobbying effort to scrap the law that requires admission to be based on a single entrance exam. Those schools currently enroll mostly Asian students. 

Some have argued the city has the power to remove the “specialized” distinction from most of the elite high schools, which would leave it up to New York City to determine new admissions methods. Others are skeptical of the approach, which wouldn’t apply to the largest specialized high schools that collectively enroll almost 80% of students in those schools.

The School Diversity Advisory Group is scheduled to present the recommendations Tuesday at 1 p.m., at a press conference on the steps of City Hall.