Story was published on May 18, 2011.
Last week, the AmNews–along with Our Town and West Side Spirit–reported on the dwindling numbers of Black and Latino students at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, two of the city’s top specialized high schools. The report also uncovered that both schools have discontinued the Discovery Program, which helps kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who scored a few points below the cutoff on the entrance exam take summer courses to qualify to get into the elite schools.
As the AmNews was researching what had happened to the program, New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott took to the airwaves on NY1 to state that the Discovery Program would not help increase the numbers of Black and Latino students at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. Walcott argued that the Discovery Program is “not race-based,” neglecting to mention that “low-income” and “economically disadvantaged” are often used as code words for minorities.
So the question remains: how can boosting the numbers of Blacks and Latinos, along with increasing access to the ivory tower of New York City’s public high schools, become a priority for the city?
“It would have to come from the chancellor or the mayor,” said former New York City comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. “Chancellors [Joel] Klein and Cathie Black, for a brief period of time, hadn’t been focused on that. We hope that the commitment from the top comes back with Dennis Walcott being there. That’s what it will take.”
In addition to being comptroller, Thompson also served on the New York City Board of Education during the Rudy Giuliani years.
“To have somebody say this is important,” he continued. “To make sure the word gets out. To make sure the schools are notifying the parents–that all comes from the top. If you’re going to have something that works, the entire system is committed. It starts from the top.”
Even some voices from the DOE’s past have come back to address the lack of Black and Latinos at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew spoke from his office in Los Angeles about last week’s report. He said the DOE is failing in its duty to serve all of New York’s kids.
“I think that as much as it’s about Bronx Science and Stuyvesant having an obligation, it’s that the system has an obligation,” he said. “This is what the system has to do if it wants to operationalize the notion that there are routes of access for all students, especially students who have been historically underrepresented in these quantitative analysis-based schools.
“It’s not rocket science to try and understand this. It represents a perennial concern because there are so few people of color represented in the ranks of careers like medicine and engineering. Yes the numbers have increased a bit over time, but I just don’t see how there would be any kind of pullback with the Discovery Program. There is an obligation for the system to do that.”
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.”