Specialized Prejudice: Protest as Mayor calls to end specialized high school test

Stephon Johnson | 6/7/2018, 8:44 a.m.
One man, who’s on the staff of a school district in Manhattan, anonymously compared the demographics of the NBA to ...
Mayor Bill de Blasio and parents from Stuyvesant High School Bill Moore/Stephon Johnson photos

One man, who’s on the staff of a school district in Manhattan, anonymously compared the demographics of the NBA to specialized high schools. The man also suggested that Black people just might be more physically capable and dominate the NBA in the same way that Asians have adopted a culture that emphasizes academics.

The man was Asian.

Monday, at the Golden Imperial Palace in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights and CoalitionEdu, a network of alumni parents and other supporters of specialized high schools, held a news conference opposing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s specialized high school reform.

[De Blasio] took our money instead of helping us out,” said CAACR President John Chan through a translator. “Yesterday’s policy was the last straw!”

De Blasio’s specialized high school reform involves expanding the Discovery program to help more disadvantaged students receive an offer and phasing out the Specialized High School Exam over a three-year period while reserving seats for the top performers at all public middle schools.

“Basically for thousands and thousands of students and neighborhoods all over New York City, the message has been these specialized schools aren’t for you,” said de Blasio during Monday’s announcement of his reform proposal. “That’s really what they’ve been receiving. In lots of neighborhoods all over the city they’ve been told, in effect, this is not your thing. And the amount of talent that has gone missing because of that is unbelievable, because talent takes many forms. The people are going to be great leaders, great thinkers, great creative presences. It takes many, many forms. But you know what doesn’t allow us to capture all of that, and understand all of that? A single standardized test could never, ever capture all that talent.”

Under the mayor’s reform, the top 7 percent of students from all middle schools would gain admission to one of the specialized high schools and those who didn’t attend public school would be admitted through a lottery. The mayor could implement the Discovery program’s expansion on his own, but needs to go through the state if he wants the exam eliminated.

According to the mayor, based on current models, 45 percent of offers would go to Black and Latino students, compared to the current 9 percent, 62 percent of offers would go to female students (44 percent currently) and four times more offers would go to Bronx residents.

“So what we are proposing today is not to eliminate bootstraps,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at the announcement. “What we’re proposing today is not to eliminate the boots. What we’re saying is that there are ways to have multiple pathways to show their brilliance, to show their excellence.”

But Asian New Yorkers, some of whom joined a protest outside of City Hall Tuesday, said that they’re being ignored as low-income immigrants of color (almost half of the students in Bronx Science and Stuyvesant come from impoverished homes) and their financial sacrifices in favor of paying for test prep are being overlooked.

Chan directed his anger toward de Blasio and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who supports the mayor’s reform measures.

“They took money from the Asian community and it didn’t help,” said Chan through a translator. ‘They’re taking advantage of us.” Chan also said that ever since the shooting involving Chinese-American NYPD Officer Peter Liang, “We became the scapegoat.” Several people in attendance said that de Blasio is racist toward Asians. One person in attendance suggested looking up the academic records of de Blasio’s son, Dante, who attended Brooklyn Tech.

According to the Department of Education, as of the 2016-17 school year, 75 percent of Stuyvesant High School students were Asian (1 percent Black), 64 percent of Bronx Science students were Asian (2 percent Black) and 61 percent of Brooklyn Technical High School students were Asian (7 percent Black).

In 1971, New York Assemblyman Burton Hecht and New York State Sen. John Calandra, both from the Bronx, collaborated with specialized high school supporters to protect the exam’s “elite” status after activists accused the exam of being culturally biased. Known as the Hecht-Calandra Act, the bill mandated that the exam be used as the only way to admittance and also instituted the Discovery program. Through the years, specialized high schools have ignored the Discovery program, but the de Blasio administration slowly revived it.

On top of de Blasio’s reform attempts, New York State Assembly Member Charles Barron introduced bill A.10427 in favor of outright eliminating the SHSAT. New York State Assembly Member Inez Dickens supports Barron’s bill, but said that although she has her reservations, this could force the city’s education officials to take the actions they should have been taking all along.

“My fear, and I told this to the deputy chancellor, is that you’re opening up the floodgates and letting all of these minority students in, some of whom might not be prepared,” Dickens said. “That’s a fear I have conveyed to Barron as well. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. But there needs to be an immediate electrical shock saying things can be changed. Maybe if we open these doors, they’ll be forced to better the schools.”

But that doesn’t mean all legislators are on board with SHSAT reform.

New York State Assembly Member Ron Kim said he has encountered immigrant and Asian-American families with strong views of the SHSAT who feel excluded from the dialogue about reform. He said that they feel as if they don’t matter.

“Unless all communities, including Asian-American families whose children represent a significant portion of test-takers as well as the student bodies in our specialized high schools, are part of the decision-making process, I cannot support A.10427 or any efforts to reform the admissions process,” said Kim in a statement.

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested that de Blasio’s desire to eliminate the SHSAT is tied to mayoral control of schools, firing yet another salvo in the feud between him and the mayor. New York State gubernatorial Candidate Cynthia Nixon supports the measure, stating through a spokesperson that tackling segregation in New York City’s school system at any cost is a must. “School segregation is a serious problem across the state, and the step being taken by Assemblyman Barron and the mayor are an important part of the puzzle,” said the spokesperson.

But when it comes to SHSAT, the debate is even more intense on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter where alumni of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are battling between embracing reform or maintaining their elite status at all costs.

On the Facebook page for the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, organization president Larry Cary wrote that de Blasio and Carranza are phasing out one form of exclusivity for another.

“This bill not only fails to address the longer-term educational challenges facing too many underrepresented communities, but it disturbingly eliminates equal access to the specialized high schools for youngsters from Catholic, Jewish and Muslim middle schools as well as private secular schools, as its primary admissions system is limited to only students attending public schools,” wrote Cary. “While we recognize the importance of increasing diversity in the specialized high schools—and believe there is much that can, and must, be done—bill number A10427A is absolutely the wrong approach.”

Petitions have been passed around through social media designed to flood New York State Assembly Member and Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan’s email with wishes to keep the exam.

Dr. Mervin R. Matthew, an instructional associate professor of Psychology at the University of Mississippi (and Bronx Science Class of 1999) said that the SHSAT didn’t bother him, but he felt more that it shouldn’t be the only source of admission for students.

“I have no problem with using the SHSAT as an admission criterion—it just shouldn’t be the only one,” said Matthew. “Having taught college courses for 12 years and assisted with them for two years before that, I’ve become very acquainted with students who thrive in every aspect of the class except for exams. Some have high test anxiety, something that would certainly be in play when the exam is the sole criterion, and other do well with the written portion of their exams but not with multiple choice.”

In a statement addressed to alums and pro-SHSAT advocates, the Coalition of Specialized High Schools announced its opposition to the elimination of the exam and called de Blasio’s approach misguided.

“Once again, a long-term, multifaceted approach is needed on this critical issue, not a complicated, unworkable approach introduced in the dead of night and which potentially does not put young people in a position to succeed,” read the statement. “The goal must be to address the systematic, long-term educational challenges facing far too many young people in underrepresented communities and help to ensure that all New York City school children have access to the high-quality educational opportunities they deserve.”

But other alums believe that those who attended specialized high schools shouldn’t get on their high horse.

“If we want to be real, I used to see the records of students when I worked in the guidance counselors’ office as a 12th-grader,” said Jason Clinkscales, a writer and editor who graduated from Bronx Science in 2000. “A whole lot of the defenders in this debate wasted resources that could have gone to kids elsewhere that would have served Bronx Science much, much better. Believe me. We did really well on a test one Saturday morning in October, but that doesn’t make us as gifted or brilliant or special as it did lucky and well-versed in the politics of a broken system. We should think beyond our 14-18-year-old egos and wonder about those who didn’t get that break.”

Cyriac George also went to Bronx Science, taught at a public school in the Bronx for two years and spent two summers in high school in a program prepping kids from the SHSAT. Currently living abroad, George said that specialized high schools will be different, but not for the reasons that others have cited.

“Every non-Black community in the U.S., regardless of how liberal or conservative, has a particular willingness to accept Black people,” George said. “You cross a certain threshold and everybody gets the [expletive] outta dodge. It might be 1 percent or 5 percent. At liberal arts colleges, it might hover at around 15 percent. In most parts of NYC, it’s higher, but anything even remotely resembling, no [expletive] that, approaching the demographic breakdown of the city would lead to an exodus from the public school system not seen since the postwar days of the G.I. Bill, Levittowns, redlining and interstate highway construction.”

David Lee, director of CoalitionEdu, said that he opposes reform and suggested that this period in the history of specialized high schools is just another wave that could subside given its history.

“We feel that the mayor’s policy and proposal is wrong because it will destroy the high schools that have benefited thousands of students of all income and ethnic backgrounds over the years, including a great number of African-Americans,” stated Lee. “At Brooklyn Tech, for example, in its first 50 years it was majority white immigrants, the next 30 years it was majority Black and Hispanic, for the past 15 years it has become majority Asian. There is no racial selectivity in the admission examination.”

But George believes that racial selectivity of a different kind would take place if de Blasio and Barron get their way.

“It is a fact that the white and Asian communities of the city would rather let these schools implode than allow their children to share that space with more than a handful of ‘the Blacks,’” George said. “The fear mongers have a point. The proposed changes will probably destroy these elite schools, but not because a few more Black and Latinos [are] studying there; it’s because the parents of the other students will pull out and then go on to reminisce about the good old days like Jews talking about the Grand Concourse.”

According to Lee, however, de Blasio’s policy is “divisive among ethnic groups that strive and have been successful in working together. This cannot be tolerated.” Lee also pointed to a crisis that he feels is more important for City Hall to address.

“Unlike my fellow Black and Hispanic alumni 30 years ago, the public school pipeline to high achievement has been broken and this will not fix it,” said Lee. “According to the 2017 State Assessment Test, only 2 percent of Black eighth graders are highly proficient in math. This is educational genocide by the public school system.”

In City Hall Tuesday, several mothers of specialized high school students talked about not getting their hair done and not getting manicures in favor of paying for their child’s test prep. Others talked about having their kid prepare for the SHSAT for years leading up to the exam, even in elementary school. A few more attendees reiterated their belief that de Blasio’s policy is anti-Asian.

That last part is something that Clinkscales has a problem with.

“Are they also saying that these are their seats to lose?” asked Clinkscales. “Because that belief isn’t in the spirit of a test that’s supposed to be free to all. Just as in job searches, college applications and other processes that purport fairness. Black and Latino families want the same opportunities, especially since they make up a wider gulf of the city and public school population.”

Dickens said that people like her have clamored for the city and the state to fix education from kindergarten to eighth grade for years and nothing has been done. She said this legislation could be the change that sparks it.

“We said, ‘let’s fix it’ and it hasn’t been done,” said Dickens. “So sometimes if you let out a shot in the air, that forces us to say ‘no more guns.’ I’m getting letters upon letters and most of them tell me don’t open the floodgates. They say change the system. We’ve been asking for change. It’s like people who advocate for drug programs and facilities, but not on their block.”

“Maybe this is the shock we need,” concluded Dickens.