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City Announces Programs to Boost Diversity at Specialized High Schools

By Amy Zimmer | June 9, 2016 4:48pm
 The specialized high schools include Stuyvesant, Hunter, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science.
The specialized high schools include Stuyvesant, Hunter, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science.
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MANHATTAN — The Department of Education announced Thursday six new initiatives to boost diversity at its eight elite high schools that require the Specialized High School Admissions Test, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Through expanding programs like free tutoring for low-income students, the city hopes to increase the number of black and Latino students, who are underrepresented at the specialized schools.

This school year, 11 percent of students enrolled in these eight high schools were black or Latino, compared to 68 percent citywide, DOE officials noted.

And the results of this year’s test won’t help: just 4 percent of the students admitted to these schools were black, down from 5 percent from the year before; and roughly 6 percent were Latino, down from about 7 percent, according to DOE data.  Moreover, 73 percent of black and Latino students accepted their offers compared to 86 percent of their Asian counterparts.

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

The city is getting $2 million from Albany for the efforts that are expected to be in place before the next admissions test, also known as SHSAT, in October. It’s expected to cost $15 million to run these programs through fiscal year 2020, city officials said.

Significantly fewer black and Latino students take the entry exam for these eight elite schools: 22 percent of black and Latino eighth graders took the SHSAT last fall, compared to 52 percent of their Asian and white peers, according to the DOE.

To help change those statistics, the DOE plans to increase the number of test takers through dedicated outreach teams and by partnering with test prep agencies who are interested in offering scholarships for middle school afterschool programs.

The Office of Student Enrollment will hire up to five outreach specialists, similar to the Pre-K for All outreach teams, to target low-income, high-achieving students for the SHSAT, as well as for its DREAM and Discovery programs.

DREAM is a free afterschool program that provides sixth and seventh graders with rigorous prep for the exam. It, too, will be expanded to eighth grade to reach another 500 students.

The Discovery program is a little-known summer intensive course that some of the elite schools run to help low-income or otherwise eligible students who score just below the SHSAT qualifying score gain a spot.

This summer, Discovery will expand at Brooklyn Tech and will start up at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. In all, the program is expected to serve 220 students this year, compared to last year’s 120, DOE officials said.

The DOE also hopes to encourage more students to enroll at these schools by requiring each of them to develop a plan to promote a “school climate that is welcoming of all students” and encouraging them to identify student ambassadors and alumni of color to reach out to accepted students.

“I’m glad the DOE has taken some initiative here,” said Jonathan Halabi, the UFT Chapter Leader at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, “but I think there’s room for a whole lot more.”

For David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, these new initiatives didn’t feel so new.

“This is a rehash of decades worth of proposals, which have never shown any ability to change the racial demographics of the specialized high schools,” he said. “De Blasio and Farina should be ashamed of themselves.”

It goes against what de Blasio had promised when he was a mayoral candidate, added Bloomfield, who criticized the use of test prep as the route to demonstrate giftedness.

Elissa Stein, co-president of Brooklyn Tech’s PTA, called it a “great step forward” on “putting the pieces in place to change the trajectory of who goes to specialized high schools and who doesn’t,” but she feared the test prep efforts might only be a band-aid.

“In some ways they’re missing the point,” Stein said. “To prep kids in eighth grade to pass the test doesn’t mean they’re prepared in the long run. It’s almost setting kids up for failure because they’re not used to the rigor. I’ve always said that bolstering kids earlier and making kids more academically well-rounded at an earlier age is important.”