A new Discovery

New York City has long grappled with the de facto segregation in its schools, especially its eight sought-after specialized high schools, whose students are predominantly white or Asian.

These elite schools require students to ace one test for entry, a rule established by state law in 1971. That single-test approach has been sacrosanct, especially during the Bloomberg administration, which worshipped high-stakes testing. The result is that some of the best schools in the city are out of reach for black and Latino students who are smart and talented but have no access to the costly test prep that other students can afford.

In 2014, the UFT Specialized High School Task Force recommended targeting the top performers at every middle school and basing admission on a student’s grade point average, state exam scores and attendance record, in addition to the score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. In its final report, the task force said, “The specialized high schools’ decreasing racial and socioeconomic diversity, coupled with a rapidly expanding test-prep industry, seemed to grant greater access to students with greater economic advantages, while limiting access to those with the greatest need.”

Even the outgoing principal at Stuyvesant HS said he’s in favor of multiple measures to decide admission. “Too much is at stake on one day for a few hours for youngsters who are 13,” he told The New York Times.

The de Blasio administration proposed a plan in August that is a step in the right direction. The UFT task force had made a similar recommendation: Revive and extend the reach of the city’s Discovery program. The Discovery program, established in 1972, offered an intensive summer program to middle school students from low-income families who fall just below the cutoff mark for acceptance. It fell out of favor and has been used only sporadically.

Ultimately, we need the state to pass legislation to change the admission policy so the talented and qualified black and Latino students who have been shut out under the current policy have the chance to study at these schools. Research shows that a diverse classroom benefits all students, regardless of race or family income. It’s time that New York City’s elite high schools reflect the diversity of our city.

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