The issue of what to do with NYC’s prestigious specialized high schools and their lack of diversity recently led to Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials announcing sweeping changes that would ultimately remove the SHSAT, currently the sole criteria for admittance, as the indicator of who is admitted to these schools. Although I applaud the mayor for taking steps to address the issue of diversity in SHS, I respectfully disagree with his platform and recommendations.
As a product of a SHS (Brooklyn Tech class of 1980), I cringe when I hear that there has always been an issue of diversity in the SHS. I think of the many friends from various cultures I made during my time there and wonder where this current issue of a lack of diversity stems from. I went to a Brooklyn Tech that was approximately 30 percent African/Caribbean/Black American and 30 percent Hispanic. We came from G&T (gifted and talented) programs from all over NYC. We reflected the city, its diverse neighborhoods, its diverse cultures and traditions, and we were all amazingly bright, gifted, talented and driven. We also had one more thing in common. We passed the SHSAT. We were proud of this achievement. It was our reward for working hard through elementary and middle school. It was the reward of the teachers who provided us with accelerated instruction because we were able to handle it and actually required it so that our minds could grow and expand at the rate they were meant to. It was the reward of the schools that sustained these programs and made sure that we were also exposed to various talents, the arts, physical education and sports while reading at a 12th grade level in the sixth grade. It was the reward of our parents who sent us to summer school, not for remediation but to get further ahead, who pushed us for excellence and made sure we took care of our work before we were able to play or go on vacations. The test was not an issue then, it was just a hurdle that our public education system had prepared us to jump over, and we did. Hundreds of us did, thousands of us did. We jumped that hurdle and went from Tech and other SHS to the best colleges and universities in the country and to meaningful careers all over the world. The test was not a problem then. The test is not the problem now.
What has happened to our public school system from those days to now is the question that I ask and the question no one wants to answer. Yes, the city is demographically different, yes test prep companies are now doing business in many communities (including a limited few in African-American communities), but I want to know what happened to those students like myself, who thrived in those gifted and talented classes and went from elementary school to middle school to SHS. See, we had a pipeline to the SHS. That pipeline has been busted and no one wants to fix it. Why are there not G&T programs in every school in the city? Did we suddenly stop making G&T children? Did our reserve of academically astute children just dry up or did someone or some people decide we didn’t deserve these programs anymore? Where are the G&T programs in Harlem, in Washington Heights, in the North Bronx, in the South Bronx, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights, in Flatbush, in East New York? How did we dismantle the machinery that allowed students to master the test, that provided them with the foundation required to be successful, not just for the test but for life, and then wonder why those students are not there? How do we blame the test for this development? Can we blame the SHSAT for the fact that in 2017, out of the approximately 13,000 Black eighth graders who took the NYS math test, 2.1 percent obtained a level 4 (exceeding proficiency), which roughly comes to about 270 students? Is that not the real issue? Should we do away with the state tests as well? Maybe next the Regents, the SAT, the ACT, the LSAT, the MCAT? Let’s just do away with all of it and let everything be a function of anything else. That’s what the logical conclusion to this road takes us.
Where should we go from here? Let’s fix the pipeline. Let’s make a concerted effort to increase the number of level 4s in all of NYC. That helps everybody, that helps diversity, that helps those other high schools that are filled with level 1 and 2s because a few schools took all of the few students that were academically proficient or above. How do we do this? We get to work!
There was a state senate bill introduced this year for a Pre-SHSAT to be given in the sixth grade. Let’s pass that bill so we can identify top talent in every school. Or we could just take the top 25 to 30 performing sixth and seventh grade student in under-represented middle schools in the city (based on yes, the state tests) and accelerate them. Create summer academies for them where they learn the material for the next school year. Give them time to absorb challenging math topics such as algebra and geometry. Teach them reading comprehension strategies that they use at the top high schools and colleges. Support them emotionally and culturally through exposure to the arts and STEM. Once they have mastered the state requirements, prep them for the SHSAT. They will jump that hurdle with ease, the same way I jumped that hurdle with ease because a system believed I could do it and provided the means for me to do it. It didn’t require a change in the law back then. It doesn’t require a change in the law now. It requires those in City Hall and in the DOE to commit to funding and establishing these programs, so we can take our children to the next level academically. There are programs in the community doing this work now. It can be done! No one should be happy with 2.1 percent above proficiency. If we fix that issue, we fix the issue of the lack of diversity in the specialized high schools and we revitalize what education in NYC means once again.
Jonathan Adewumi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a 1980 Brooklyn Tech graduate.