David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The fact that just seven black students recently received offers to attend one of the city’s most elite public schools, Stuyvesant High School, has generated justifiable outrage. Those seven students represent less than one percent of the 895 offers that were made to attend Stuyvesant. And when you consider that 5,488 black students took the SHSAT – the extracurricular exam that is the sole admissions mechanism for specialized high schools like Stuyvesant – that’s an acceptance rate of one-tenth of one percent. This statistic is not just an indictment of our school system, but an acknowledgement of the worst of our broader racial hierarchies.

The Community Service Society (CSS) has been calling attention to this issue for some time. We released a study in 2013 calling for change, and in 2015 published a proposal to allow the top performers from across the city to gain automatic entry into these schools, if they were in the top three percent of their middle school class, and the top 16 percent citywide, rather than rely on rank order scores on the SHSAT. The admissions policy the mayor put for forward one year ago, which would admit the top seven percent of students from each school assuming they are in the top 25 percent citywide, is based on CSS research.

What’s been interesting about this year’s response to the acceptance results is that along with the increased calls for change, there has been, perhaps not surprisingly, more resistance to any such reform.

The SHSAT and Stemming ‘White Flight’

Case in point: A group of private interests with deep pockets created the Education Equity Campaign, “a multimillion-dollar lobbying, public relations and advertising effort with the primary goal of keeping the SHSAT.” Their solution to the ugly segregation at those schools includes efforts that have failed to work in the past, such as more testing and test prep, into which millions of public dollars have already been wasted with no change in results, and which also pervert what real education should consist of (hint: instead of test prep, perhaps we could invest more in reducing class size and enriching academic activities).

Some of the campaign’s other “solutions”, such as creating more specialized high schools for those just missing the admissions cutoff, will only further segregate and stratify our school system (hint: the next in line for admission are demographically similar to those already gaining admission).

We would like to think that these “solutions” are well-intentioned and simply misguided. But we know better: they are really smokescreens aimed at distracting attention from the SHSAT, an extracurricular exam developed in the 1970s with the specific purpose of creating a set of segregated schools amid a period of “white flight.”

Rather than cater to those students who already benefit from families with more resources, our specialized high schools, if they should exist at all, should serve as a way to give the top performers from every neighborhood the chance to study together, thereby mitigating some of the residential segregation and isolation caused by gentrification.

A percentage plan for top performers is the only type of solution that recognizes context and does not make students from poor communities compete in a contest they cannot win in a society as unequal as ours. Remember, there is no “passing score” for the SHSAT, it’s just rank-order acceptance. The scores have gone up each year for all –including black and Latino students–as more time and resources are spent on test prep, so it’s not a question of proficiency.

People are starting to realize that this system is rigged. Even the New York Post reported a poll showing that most New Yorkers favor a new admissions system. And in our own polling, CSS has discovered that parents across income and ethnic groups support allowing automatic entry to specialized high schools for the top performers at each middle school.

What is disappointing is the amount of money founders of Education Equity are spending on lobbyists, “community leaders,” and PR firms, all with the real intention of preserving the SHSAT, one of the city’s most venerable institutions of segregation. It’s too bad they aren’t putting their efforts into projects that integrate and improve our schools. But that’s how power works: when systems of oppression are questioned, they use their influence to preserve themselves. Because they know the tide is turning.

Here’s the question for Albany lawmakers, who will decide this issue: will ‘Big Money” prevail, or can we create a different type of system, where access to educational opportunity has less to do with dollars and more to do with determination and drive of students from every part of our city?

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.