Specialized High Schools: How access to advanced education heightens social division

Melody Jiang
Apr 21 · 15 min read
Stuyvesant High School front gate. Photo by Melody Jiang.

Orion McKnight, 12, arrived at Stuyvesant High School in downtown New York with his mother and 14 classmates on a February afternoon in 2018. It was just about time when the high schoolers were walking out of class, passing Orion and his friends, who were the only Black and Latinx students around.

“Can we come to this school?” one seventh grader asked Cynthia McKnight, Ryan’s mother and patron of the middle schoolers. “Because it seems like, it’s just Asians and whites.”

“That’s why we’re here for the test prep,” McKnight recalled that day. “It’s a hard test, but you’re going to work harder. It’s not like anyone is smarter than you. They’re working harder.”

Orion, who is now 13 years old in eighth grade, is determined to go to the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, which, like Stuyvesant, is one of the nine specialized high schools in New York City. To gain admission to these prestigious and sought-after public high schools, a student has to get an average score of 518 out of 800 on the admission test. So Orion is preparing for the SHSAT, a 180-minute long exam on English and math.

The specialized high schools are designed for students who excel academically and artistically, offering tuition-free, high quality education rivaling that of private high schools, which charge an average tuition of approximately $30,000 a year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. These public schools have a record of nurturing nine Nobel Prize winners, hundreds of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, award-winning biologists and physicists, as well as top feeders to the Ivy League colleges.

When applying for public high schools, New York City students have more choices than students in any other city in the country. There are over 600 public schools, nearly 230 charter schools, and about 100 independent schools across the city, according to city data. But even with the many prestigious schools in New York City, specialized high schools are some of the most competitive options. At Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, students are screened by audition and portfolio; while the other eight schools require the SHSAT. Last year, approximately 28,000 students took the test, and only 5,000, 18 percent, were accepted, according to the Department of Education data.

Every Monday, McKnight brings her students to Stuyvesant High School for a free SHSAT test prep course, for which she negotiated arduously for a year, sponsored and taught by the school’s honor society students. The middle schoolers attend the Dock Street School, a Title-one school in DUMBO, Brooklyn, established in September 2016 to provide high-quality STEAM curriculum for low-income students who are mostly Black and Hispanic.

“We want it to be a feeder to the specialized high schools,” said McKnight, who graduated from Columbia University and is now the PTA President and a member of the founding committee at Dock Street School.

“Pinnacle of Great Education”

Stuyvesant High School. Photo by Melody Jiang.

As valued as these special schools are, recently, they have been the center of heated controversies due to the preponderance of white and Asian-American students over black and Hispanic representation.

Asian-Americans now account for 62 percent of students in the specialized high schools, followed by 24 percent white students. Blacks and Hispanics only make up 4 and 6 percent of the student body respectively, even though two-thirds of the whole city school system is black and Hispanic. In addition, students from 10 middle schools, which are predominantly white and Asian, make up a quarter of all specialized high schools’ student body, according to Department of Education data.

“They should be providing opportunity not just to select group of students or select middle schools, but to all New York City students,” said Liliana Zaragoza, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), which filed a complaint in September 2012, arguing that the racial disparities in specialized high schools show discrimination against Black and Latinx students. The complaint is still pending after seven years.

In an effort to make the schools’ demographic more reflective of the students of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza proposed to scrap the SHSAT and replace it with multiple criteria that includes grades and state test scores. Under the proposal, students who are at the top 7 percent in their middle school, while scoring within the top 25 percent citywide, will be eligible for admission to the specialized high schools. However, any changes to the test will require an act of the State Legislature, which mandated in a 1971 law that the SHSAT be the only measure of admission for Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and the Bronx High School of Science.

“There is currently a great deal of overlap between top performers and students who receive offers to the SHSAT,” wrote Will Mantell, Press Secretary at the Department of Education, in an email statement.

Another part of the proposal is to expand the Discovery program starting in September 2019 to give 20 percent of the seats at each specialized high school to students attending higher poverty schools who just miss the cut-off score on the SHSAT. These higher poverty schools must have at least 60 percent of students that are economically needy, which are majorly Black and Hispanic students.

As a result, Mantell wrote that offers to black and Hispanic students across the specialized high schools would nearly double, going from approximately 9 percent currently to approximately 16 percent. And the city can amend Discovery by itself.

The change to the qualification process of the Discover program prompted several Asian-American parents, civil rights groups and the Christa McAuliffe Parent Teacher Organization to file a lawsuit against the mayor in December 2018. The Asian-American parents say the city’s plan would hurt many poor Asian students who used to meet the criteria of the Discovery program to be no longer qualified, which violates their equal-protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“[The mayor and chancellor Carranza’s] know perfectly well what the changes are going to do and that is to decrease the number of Asian American students at these specialized high schools,” said Wen Fa, attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation representing the plaintiffs. “[They] believe that there are too many Asian American students at these specialized high schools, and that’s just wrong and unconstitutional because every person should be judged based on individual merit and his or her individual qualities.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation asked for a preliminary injunction that would halt the expansion of Discovery program for the coming school year, but was denied by the court in late February this year. The attorneys are now preparing to appeal the preliminary injunction while gathering more facts to be presented in New York district court.

Fa sees a parallel between this suit and other legal challenges against affirmative action, which was originally introduced in the 1960s to ensure equal opportunities for people of minority groups and women in education and employment. But over the years, as more Asian-American students flock into high-education institutions, many question if affirmative action policies are used to enroll more black and Latinx students at the expense of Asian-American applicants. “Affirmative action as it’s used now connotes racial preferences for one group over another,” Fa said. “We don’t think the [institution] should be giving a racial preference” over academic achievement.

Zaragoza of LDF, on the other hand, disagrees that the change in Discovery falls under affirmative action, stating that it is a race-neutral program that focuses solely on economically disadvantaged students from all ethnic groups.

The proposal is a “reverse discrimination”

A year has passed since the proposal was announced, and the controversy continues, leaving many minority residents feeling they are being pitted against each other in one of the most racially and socioeconomically divers cities in the nation.

“Our first thought is that the plan is a form of reverse discrimination,” said Xuhui Ni, a Chinese immigrant whose 11-year-old son plans to take the SHSAT next year. “What we thought about the American Dream is that the core value is equal opportunity. It wouldn’t ask for the color of your skin or your family background. It should be solely based on your ability, and that’s why we believe it should be equal opportunity and not an equal result.”

Inside Xuhui Ni’s computer-repair shop. Photo by Melody Jiang.

Ni is the father of two middle schoolers. Like many other Asian parents who oppose the mayor’s plan, he believes that standardized testing is the fairest measurement of students’ skills, and that it preserves the overall academic rigor of specialized high schools.

A 41-year-old immigrant from Fuzhou, China, Ni lived through the Chinese educational systems, in which getting into the best schools in his city depended entirely on test scores on national entrance exams.

“When we were small, our family in China didn’t have the resources for us to go after our dreams. So now, what we can do is to create that resource and opportunity for our children,” Ni said. “But when a politician plans to take that opportunity for a better education away from them, then we must stand up to defend it with all our heart.”

Ni teaches his son Leo to fix a computer machine. Photo by Melody Jiang.

His son, Leo, 11, is currently a sixth grader at I.S. 187, also known as the Christa McAuliffe School, whose parent teacher organization is one of the plaintiffs suing the mayor. I.S. 187 is a predominantly white and Asian school in Brooklyn and is a top feeder to the specialized high schools. In 2018, 205 of the 275 graduated eighth graders were admitted to the schools, according to the lawsuit statement. Under the mayor’s proposal, the parents say their children will no longer be eligible to participate in the Discovery Program; and if only 7 percent of its students can be admitted into the schools, they say it would significantly reduce the chances of many qualifying students at I.S. 187.

“That’s why so many Asian parents are so furious,” Ni said while fumbling through the wires inside a large PC laptop that sits on the counter of a small, clustered computer-repair shop, which he owns with his wife. “Many people’s perception of Chinese Americans are often very stereotypical. As if we always push our kids to study hard or spend a lot of money on test preps. My son never went to a test prep before.”

Debate Escalates

Republican Senator Martin Golden rallies protesters outside I.S. 201 Dyker Heights Intermediate School. Photo by Melody Jiang.

“Keep the test! Keep the test! Keep the test!”

As the sky slowly darkened in a normally quiet neighborhood in southern Brooklyn on October 17, 2018, the street in front of I.S. 201 Dyker Heights Intermediate School echoed with chants and slogans from a crowd of parents and children.

“Do we want to keep the SHSAT test?” shouted Republican Senator Martin Golden as he rallied the protesting parents on white marble steps.

“Yes!” they shouted in reply, wavering cardboard signs above their heads that said “Keep SHSAT” in big mint-color letters.

After the rally, parents sat down inside the school’s auditorium, holding up signs while they listened to one of a series of presentations before Community Education Councils around the city. These councils are made of elected parents from each school district. Although they have no authority over the admissions system, their collective voice can influence the lawmakers who do.

Protesters raise signs in a show of disapproval towards DOE’s presentation. Photo by Melody Jiang.

“We are committed to enhancing academic rigor in these high school, while still increasing diversity,” said Sarah Kleinhandler, Deputy CEO of elementary enrollment at the Department of Education. “We believe that a single exam is not the best indicator for student potential. New York city is the only district in the country to admit students based on a single exam.”

At many times, Kleinhandler’s statement was met with loud disapproval and boos from the predominantly Asian audience in Brooklyn.

“I’m not against making some amendments to the system,” Ni said after the meeting. “If the mayor truly wants to improve the admission system, the first thing he should do is to communicate thoroughly with the schools and parents in the community, so he can find out what the students want, what the parents and schools need, and come up with a solution after all the feedback, instead of just throwing a plan out at a sensitive time without any warning.”

At a separate community meeting in Manhattan on December 3, 2018, more than 300 parents packed an underground auditorium at the Clinton School near Union Square. After Education Department Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack delivered the same presentation that Kleinhandler used at I.S. 201 two months ago, parents took to the microphone one after another to voice their discontent.

“If this proposal is enacted, we are going to increase the racism and prejudice of our kids in the specialized high schools,” said Jonathan Haidt, a New York University professor who addressed the crowd. “Put yourself in the place of black and Hispanic kids who are there because of accounting methods.”

Parents who are against the proposal raised their hands at Manhattan Community Educational Council. Photo by Melody Jiang.

When asked to state their support for the mayor’s plan by a show of hands, nearly everyone in the predominantly white audience showed the opposition. They saw the new admission standard would unfairly compare the top 7 percent students from middle schools that are held up at different academic standards, and that the plan would lower admission bars, water down standards, and leave out many qualified students.

“People are assuming that the high test scores is the essence of [measuring the knowledge of] these kids,” said James Borland, Professor of Education at the Columbia Teachers College, who specializes in the education of gifted students. “That’s simply an indicator, and it’s not a perfect indicator.”

Borland agreed that the standardized test is efficient as a way to screen thousands of top-performing applicants, but he believes that it is more equitable and better for a society to learn in a diverse student body.

“We live in a very diverse world, in a very diverse country, especially in New York,” Borland continued. “To create an artificial system whereby certain students are systematically ignored or left out of the [program] is problematic.

“If you’re a very bright student, and you’re in classes where most of your fellow students look like you, but the other kids out in…other classes look different from you, that’s sending a message about who’s smart and who isn’t,” Boland added.

In the current debate over student representation in specialized high schools, it is often forgotten that over three decades ago, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech had a considerable number of black and Latinx students, which made up about 10 percent, 20 percent and over 50 percent of the student body respectively. Over the years, the number of black, Latinx and white students dropped substantially, whereas Asian-American students significantly increased.

“It was a result of increased immigration from eastern Asian and Southern Asian communities,” Boland said. “They’ve come with real strong work ethics and a belief in education as a means to a good life.”

The wave of Asian immigration to the U.S. escalated in the mid-1960s with significant policy change in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 in the United States. The loosening control from China in 1978 also opened new pathways for Chinese mainland immigrants, for which the number exploded as more skilled workers and family members entered the U.S, according to the Library of Congress. The number of Chinese mainland immigrants increased nearly seventh-fold from 299,000 in 1980 to about 2.1 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data.

Many first-generation Asian immigrants were skilled and educated. With an American Dream in mind, they came to the United States in search for a better life, job opportunities and education for their children.

Sidra Ahmad’s parents were from Pakistan. They moved to Kuwait in the 1990s where her father worked as a banker, and her mother was a nurse. After the Gulf War, the family feared a potential return of Saddam Hussein, so they immigrated to Queens, New York when Ahmad was an infant.

She graduated in 2012 from the Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, one of the specialized high schools, and went on to study at New York University. Now a data scientist at Spotify, Ahmad supports the mayor’s proposal to scrap the SHSAT.

“The [test] doesn’t actually test on what students learn in school,” she said. “You can essentially gain your way into doing well by learning test-taking strategies…and prepping your way to getting a high score.”

Growing up with constant domestic violence in her family and being undocumented for many years without much money, Ahmad believed for a long time that she could only change her life through hard work.

“I very much believed that the U.S. is a meritocracy,” she said. “As long as you work really hard and do well in school and get a good job, you’re kind of assured to be successful and join the middle class.”

But a volunteer experience in her freshman year of college, teaching civic engagement at a high school that was predominantly low-income black and Hispanic students, completely changed her view.

“These were kids who were being abused, or who had behavioral issues, or who’s grandmother was raising them because both of their parents were in jail,” Ahmad said. “I had students who were sexually assaulted, or had friends who were 15 and pregnant.

“It’s not because they weren’t smart or because they didn’t work hard, but because the odds were stacked against them in a lot of ways,” she said.

“Just give us opportunity”

Cynthia McKnight learned about the specialized high school admission test when she was attending committee meetings in 2015 to establish the Dock Street School.

When Orion became one of the first group of six graders at Dock Street, he was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition that makes it difficult for him to stay focused on a specific tasks, which affected his average school grades for the next two years.

During seventh grade, Orion wanted to aim for the top public schools in the city, so his mother researched about test prep programs and discovered that nearly all students at her school couldn’t afford the courses.

A normal eight-session Kaplan SHSAT prep package that lasts four to six months can start from a price of $799. Another 10-month SHSAT test prep for current seventh graders at AdmissionSquad, another test prep program, costs $400 per month, according to prices on their websites.

Cynthia McKnight talks about test prep in New York City. Photo by Melody Jiang.

“It was shocking even for me, and I work full time,” said McKnight, who works as a quality assurance specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After a series of phone calls and negotiations with the specialized high schools, McKnight received sponsorship in February 2018 for her students to attend SHSAT prep courses at Stuyvesant High Schools every Monday and Saturday for free. In September that year, she received another sponsorship for a tutoring boot camp taught by Tai Abrams, founder and CEO of AdmissionSquad, a non-profit education organization that prepares middle schoolers for top high schools in New York City.

McKnight made sacrifices for her son to study harder. “We got rid of cable,” she said. “You got to study for the test.”

Because he started the test preparation late in his seventh grade, Orion studied eight hours a day for the SHSAT. But to his mom’s delight, after eight months, he was scoring enough on his diagnostic tests to get into Stuyvesant High School, which has the highest exam cut-off score out of all the specialized high schools.

Orion took the official SHSAT test in October 2018. The results for high school admissions are expected to come out next week, when Orion will find out if he is accepted into a specialized high school.

As the debate over the admission system continue to escalate, the African American community in New York is also split over the mayor’s proposal to eliminate the SHSAT.

“I agree with the mayor [that] diversity is an issue,” McKnight said. “I’ve [been] taking the kids since February to Stuyvesant High School, and to be honest, I just saw one black student this October when I started test prep for the new seventh graders.

“I don’t agree with eliminating the SHSAT, or [the mayor’s] proposal for 7 percent,” McKnight said. “He’s actually hurting the very group that he’s trying to help.”

Currently, 274 students attends the Dock Street School, where 90 percent of them are black and Latinx; 4 percent are Asian and 6 percent white. Last year, 15 students took the SHSAT, and the number will increase to 36 this year. If the number of students taking SHSAT continues to grow at Dock Street, McKnight said the 7 percent rule would lower the numbers of students admitted to the specialized high schools.

She stressed that many public schools in New York City that are predominantly Black and Latino are not provided with enough resources and rigorous curriculum for their students.

“It’s not getting to the root cause of the problem by eliminating SHSAT,” she said. “It’s not dealing with the equity issue in the public schools [of] why aren’t black and Latino schools providing that rigor.” She hopes that Dock Street can become a model for more schools, giving more academic advice and funded test prep to black and Latinx students.

“Dock Street is under the perception [that] our kids are capable,” she said. “Just give us opportunity, just give us access and we don’t need you to change the criteria.”

Age of Awareness

Melody Jiang

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Multimedia journalist with a focus on broadcast and digital reporting as one-woman band. Columbia University and University of Southern California alumni.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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