Megan Finnegan | , Stephon Johnson | , AmNews Staff | , Our Town | 4/25/2012, 5:41 p.m.

Story was originally published on May 11, 2011.

Among New York's specialized high schools, it's no secret that Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are considered the best. It's also not a secret that both of these schools admit disproportionately low numbers of black and Latino students--less than 2 percent of students in 2009-2010 at Stuyvesant were black, and less than 3 percent were Hispanic. At Bronx Science, just over 3 percent of students were black and just under 8 percent were Hispanic. This is a precipitous drop from the 10 percent of black students enrolled at Stuyvesant in 1971 and 10 percent at Bronx Science.

The numbers have consistently declined since at least 1999.

What is largely kept secret, however, is the fact that through the Discovery Program, disadvantaged students who scored just below the cutoff on the admissions test may go through a summer course that enables them to gain entrance to a specialized high school--but neither Stuyvesant nor Bronx Science utilize this program.

The decision to run the Discovery Program is at the discretion of the Department of Education, but it's not entirely clear why these schools stopped using it. Our Town made repeated requests to interview any person at DOE with knowledge of the Discovery Program; DOE denied these requests and responded only with a prepared statement. When reached by telephone after several attempts to arrange an interview, Head of Middle School Enrollment Sandy Ferguson, whom a DOE spokesperson named as the person with the most knowledge about the Discovery Program, refused to comment on the record. Stuyvesant Principal Stanley Teitel twice referred questions back to DOE, despite being given permission to speak to the press. Valerie Reidy, principal at Bronx Science, did not respond to several email and phone requests for an interview.

According to a DOE statement, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science terminated their Discovery Programs sometime in the early 2000s--the department wouldn't confirm the exact date or year--because they consistently fill their seats from the traditional admissions method alone. But that doesn't preclude schools from running a Discovery Program--it's possible that a school can set aside a certain number of seats for the students coming through the program.

The Discovery Program was born of a 1971 law written by State Senator John Calandra and Assembly Member Burton Hecht, both of the Bronx, which enshrined the criteria for admission to the city's specialized high schools to be based solely on the admissions test. At the time, Mayor Lindsay and some education advocates called for a broadening of the schools' standards in order to admit more minority students, citing the claim that standardized tests are inherently biased against minorities. In order to preserve the admissions process as based on the test alone, the legislature passed the Calandra-Hecht bill, but it also included provisions for the creation of the Discovery Program.

Today, the law's intent seems to have varying interpretations.

"The Discovery Program has a very specific purpose, which is to make sure disadvantaged students who have shown the potential to compete in specialized high schools are able to secure open spots in those schools, should they become available," said DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld in a statement. "This has never been a race-based program; rather it is a program targeted for students who come from low-income or non-English speaking families, as well as children in foster care."