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Elected officials react to 'Discovery' story

Megan Finnegan | , Stephon Johnson | , Amsterdam News Staff | , Our Town Staff | 4/25/2012, 5:50 p.m.

Crew also reiterated Thompson's sentiments. "It starts at the top, and my guess would be is that this is no longer a priority to the higher-ups," he said. "This seems like a case of 'we already fixed that problem' or 'it isn't a big issue for us to address.' But I don't know for sure since I'm not there."

New York State Sen. Malcolm Smith was willing to step forward and speak out on the issue after reading last week's piece. "The real challenge for me is to figure out why they stopped the program at those two schools," he said. "I find that somewhat discriminatory. Maybe it's not based on race or intellect, but I'm going to probably talk to Dennis [Walcott] about it and find out why the Discovery Program is not being utilized by those two schools."

"Obviously one cannot force programs on the school and conduct something race-based," Smith continued. "But recently, they've changed the evaluation of teachers, not only based on their performance but on the performance of students. If you can change the way we grade teachers, you can do the same for students."

New York State Sen. Adriano Espaillat not only reacted to the article, he took action and sent a letter to Walcott and the DOE. An excerpt from the letter, received by the AmNews, Our Town and West Side Spirit, reads: "While I understand that specialized high schools are not mandated by law to participate in the Discovery Program, the alarming decrease in Black and Latino student enrollment at these schools is reason enough to reconsider our approach to this issue. In fact, the severe drop in minority enrollment at specialized schools isn't simply an affront to communities of color; it deprives all students the opportunity to be educated in a diverse environment.

"Furthermore, the disproportionately weak enrollment of minority students--only 5 percent of students at Stuyvesant and only 11 percent of students at Bronx Science are either Black or Hispanic--represents a missed opportunity to expand access to quality education to as many students as possible," wrote Espaillat.

In 1971, New York Assemblyman Burton Hecht and Sen. John Calandra, both from the Bronx, collaborated with a group of supporters of the specialized high schools to protect the intuitions, which were then accused of administering culturally biased exams. Their goal was to maintain the specialized high schools' "elite" status. Since the 1960s, specialized high schools have resisted any change in their examination-only based criteria. They have also objected to activists who believe that the schools should serve the public as true community schools by eliminating the selective admissions process.

The Hecht-Calandra bill was eventually passed and mandated competitive examinations as the only way to admittance. The bill added, as a compromise, a provision called the Discovery Program, limiting the number of disadvantaged students in the Discovery Program to 14 percent of those admitted into the specialized high schools.

According to a New York Times report from May 20, 1971 Assemblyman G. Oliver Koppell said that the 14 percent limit was included as "protection for minority group students, claiming that the original bill eliminated all such students." In order to qualify for the Discovery Program, a student has to have scored close to the admission cutoff score of one of the specialized high schools, be certified as "disadvantaged" by their middle school under certain criteria and receive a recommendation from the guidance counselor of the students' middle school.

Koppell is still alive and kicking and had something to say about last week's piece. "Certainly, there was a sense that, in these schools, the minority population was relatively low and that the Discovery Program would benefit the minority students who didn't on average do as well. It was worded as 'culturally deprived' and 'educationally less experienced,'" he said.

"I was very surprised to learn that the Discovery Program was terminated," he continued. "We have to do a better job in the lower grades to get all kids up to snuff. Given these numbers, we should be doing more to encourage minority enrollment."