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.”

While the language of the law leaves race out of the equation, then-Assembly Member G. Oliver Koppell was quoted in a New York Times article from May 20, 1971, referring to the Discovery Program as a “protection for minority-group students.”

To be eligible for the program when it’s offered, a student must score below, but close to, the lowest qualifying score for that school on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. They must also be “certified as disadvantaged,” which can be determined by household income, whether a family receives government aid, if a child is in foster care, or for recent immigrants where English is not the primary language spoken at home. Finally, a student has to be recommended by his middle school. None of the factors include consideration of a student’s race.

No one at DOE will say why the Discovery Program was axed at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, beyond the explanation that there wasn’t space for it–which principals and DOE could create if inclined. A former principal at one of the specialized high schools, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Discovery Program was too problematic and that the students who came through it were not adequately prepared.

Jason Griffiths, the principal of Brooklyn Latin, has a different take on the Discovery Program; he says it’s a wonderful asset.

“It’s been a huge success for our school,” said Griffiths. He said that he gets a list of students from DOE who qualify for the program, and they are invited to participate in a five- to six-week summer program, with courses in English, math and Latin. Over 90 percent of the students receive offers to attend Brooklyn Latin in the fall, according to Griffiths, and these students are often more motivated and prepared than those admitted through the regular process.

Griffiths said Discovery students fare similarly to those admitted through the test alone–some excel, some are average and some don’t do as well, just as with the non-Discovery students.

“Basically we have a conversation with the Department of Education around how many spots we’d like to add to our class,” Griffiths said. “It really depends on what enrollment coming off of the test looks like.

“We’ve had a great experience from the Discovery Program,” said Griffiths. “We’ve probably been able to offer close to 75 students the opportunity to come to our school who wouldn’t have had the opportunity. I think that’s important, especially for students who may have some hurdles in terms of being new to the country and not being able to speak the language, or financial hurdles.”

Brooklyn Latin is the most diverse, though also the smallest (at about 330 students) and newest, of the eight specialized high schools. Griffiths could not say why he thought other schools would not choose to utilize this program, but did point out that there are huge differences among specialized schools, so what works for one may not work for another.

One former education official said that the Discovery Program was clearly understood as an affirmative action measure intended to help disadvantaged black and Latino students to get into the predominantly white and Asian schools of Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Former schools chancellor Harold Levy asserts that Discovery was working, and he said it clearly was helping minority students.

“I believe in that kind of high school affirmative action because it promotes racial justice and ensures an exceptional education for the next generation of minority leaders,” Levy said. “Education in New York’s specialized high schools is diminished if it becomes racially exclusionary and, at the same time, New York misses an opportunity to develop gifted minority children in those schools.”

Stephon Johnson, now a reporter with the Amsterdam News, says the Discovery Program was a “godsend,” enabling him to enroll in Bronx Science in 1996 [see sidebar]. DOE is quick to point out that Discovery does not take race or ethnicity into account when allowing kids into the program, but the program did provide more opportunities for minority students to get into these schools.

The Specialized High School Institute, a program for 6th- through 8th-grade students designed to prep them for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, was geared toward minority students until a 2007 Supreme Court ruling found it was unconstitutional for white and Asian students to be denied entry to public schools solely based on their race. Until as late as 2007, however, according to a memo from Richard D’Anria, a superintendent under then-chancellor Joel Klein, the SHSI was open only to students who met the criteria for an “underrepresented minority.” (Klein did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.) Now the DOE only requires these students to be “disadvantaged,” and race does not play a factor in admission to the SHSI or Discovery Program, but the uneven numbers of minority students in some of the specialized high schools is still viewed as a public problem.

When showed statistics of the minority populations at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in 2006, then-Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott was quoted in the New York Times referring to the specialized high schools: “We have to make sure they’re open to all of our students.” Now the chancellor, Walcott did not respond to several requests to comment for this story.

A December 2008 article, “Racial Disparity at Stuyvesant,” in the student newspaper The Spectator, addresses the same issue, with teachers at the school calling it “quite jarring” to see the low numbers of black and Latino students.

Next week, the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative is hosting a Gathering in Support of a Diverse Stuyvesant, featuring a discussion with prominent alumni (including Manhattan Media’s president, Tom Allon) on why the numbers of black and Latino students continue to decline at the prestigious school.

DOE is certainly following the letter of the law–Discovery Programs are not mandated–and no single program could address the complex issues surrounding minority access to some of the specialized schools. It’s clear, however, that DOE is not interested in reinstating the Discovery Program at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

“With the introduction of five new specialized high schools, students who miss out on Stuyvesant and Bronx Science by one or two points now receive offers to other specialized high schools–whereas before they would have been prevented from attending a specialized high school,” said Zarin-Rosenfeld in the DOE statement.

“I don’t understand how such an important program as Discovery was cut back; in my view doing so was a serious error,” said Levy. “If it happened intentionally, that’s scandalous. If by inadvertence, it speaks to callousness of administration. It should be reinstated.”