Graduation, cap and diploma (253343)
Graduation, cap and diploma Credit: Maxpixel

You have to hand it to the good folks at the New York Department of Education. Despite years of data that show admission to specialized high schools across the boroughs discriminates along race and economic lines, they still closed their eyes to the fact that admitting on the sole basis of a test means that children who have been trained to take tests will do better than those who haven’t. In the face of the ongoing lawsuit brought against them by the NAACP, the DOE did change the structure of the entrance exam, the SHSAT, to shoot for a more diverse admission pool. Although we’re only a year out from the revamped test, we already know what will happen—schools and neighborhoods that can afford test prep programs will run them, and families that have just enough disposable income to purchase a Kaplan course (or more flexible online tutorial programs such as ArgoPrep) will spend the money, and their students will have a better shot at getting into a top college-preparatory school. But there is a way we can take the best of New York education, the test prep programs and the DOE to actually change the face of who gets into these important high schools.

The Harlem Educational Activities Fund began with a single basketball—locked away from students in a Harlem school—and one man’s question: “What happens when the students from the worst of Harlem’s elementary schools leave it?” It has since become a national model for preparing students for college, and uses summer programs, college bridge experiences, tutors and counselors and in-school enrichment activities to give birth to a community idea that poor, minority students are going to get into college and will break the cycle of poverty.

HEAF has branched out a bit to train a small group of middle school students for the SHSAT, at a time when funding for Discovery Programs (the DOE’s initial answer to the admissions gap for specialized high schools) is almost non-existent. The most sought-after specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant, have eliminated their bridge programs, and others have made the requirements so narrow only the smallest group is served. To qualify for the Discovery Programs, students must show academic promise but fail to meet the cutoff for admission into a specialized high school, must be on free or reduced lunch and disadvantaged in some other way (either by going to a Title 1 school or by being from a non-English speaking home). Only 202 students gained admission through a Discovery Program in 2017—double the number of 2011’s class—but that hasn’t made a dent in admissions numbers at the specialized high schools (10 percent of students in those high schools are students of color, compared with 70 percent of New York City children). The combined public/private/community/higher education partnerships that build HEAF’s SHSAT test prep and higher education integration platforms are bright spots for a small handful of Harlem’s neediest students.

Still, most HEAF resources are devoted to getting high schoolers into college. Most middle school students currently have to rely on third-party test prep companies, and those companies have capitalized. The name-brand college and graduate school prep companies (such as Princeton Review and Kaplan) charge a premium to help students get an edge (both top out at nearly $1500 for a course and start at $1800 for private tutoring). Affordable (albeit online) self-paced programs (such as ArgoPrep, capped at $120) provide a different option for families who want their child to have the same type of advantages as the Kaplan children on exam day. But, even $120 is out of reach for many families within the boroughs who earn just enough to disqualify for participation in a Discovery Program or HEAF middle school enrichment. The enrichment gap is less a gap of rich and poor—both groups are served for preparation for the SHSAT—and more one of the lower-middle-class minority student who is systemically excluded from admissions into high schools that can propel students into college and change the economic status of their families for generations.

If a HEAF-model can be expanded to the middle-school level, minority students (especially) will benefit with an increase in admission to specialized high schools, which already prepare students for the SAT. The Discovery Programs were developed as one answer to the disparity gap that exists on specialized high school campuses, but the success of the programs depends on adequate funding, specialized high school campus buy-in (most campuses, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, ended their programs altogether in the early 2000s). But, even if run fully, there are no programs for lower-middle-income students. That leaves most lower-middle-income students without recourse: their circumstances aren’t exigent to qualify them for the small handful of programs that are still around, and they can’t afford the advantages of a prep course.

If we want to unlock the potential of our most unreached minority students in New York City, we have to start by getting them ready to play. We need a HEAF-like strategy and investment in our middle-school students.

Dr. Jill Graper Hernandez is the associate dean of University College and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.