Many brought heated words and emotions to a public meeting condemning proposed changes to the specialized high school admissions policy at the Flushing Library on Sunday. They support the existing system, under which a student’s score on a single multiple choice test determines his or her ranking and acceptance into one of the eight elite schools.
Two bills, at least one motivated by the desire to address the racial disparity between the students at these schools and the city’s overall population by changing the admissions criteria, were introduced in the state legislative session that just ended. Neither passed, but they could be brought up again in the next session.
African American and Hispanic students make up about 70 percent of the city’s students, but only 3 to 5 percent of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Many of the attendees at Sunday’s meetings were concerned about the fact that many of the elected officials have issues with the high numbers of Asian and Asian American students, about 70 percent, enrolled in the specialized high schools.
The only one of them in this borough is Queens High School for the Sciences at York College. Townsend Harris, though elite, has a different admissions procedure and is not counted among the eight that the bills targeted.
At the Flushing meeting, current students, recent graduates and parents applauded the existing system as the fairest, most objective way to determine who gets in, particularly for recent immigrants. City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) was on hand to show his support.
“A written exam is the most unbiased thing in the world,” said a man who identified himself only as Joe, a firefighter who graduated from Bronx Science in 1997. When you sit down and take an exam, that piece of paper does not ask where you’re from, how much you make, and how hard you’ve worked up to that point. If you do well, you get in; it’s the fairest thing in the world.”
“I feel offended that they call us testing robots because we’re not just testing robots, we’re so much more,” said Julienne Zhou a recent graduate of Brooklyn Tech. “We’re full, rounded human beings, and when I applied to Brooklyn Tech I did not take any prep classes; I did not pay for any prep classes either.”
Zhou said that it is unlikely that someone who does not excel on the Specialized High School Admissions Test will be able to handle the course load and schoolwork over the four years. “If it wasn’t for my own hard work, I probably wouldn’t have graduated,” Zhou said.
One mother of a student at Bronx Science said her children gave up their summers, five days a week, eight hours a day, to study. Then at the beginning of the school year, they attended classes for nine hours on the weekend to study for the exam, not including the homework for those classes.
“Do not compare our children to children who are having a great time because our children are giving up their time and giving up their childhood and working toward something better,” she said.
The parents associations of Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant promptly issued statements decrying the changes and a change.org petition received about 5,000 signatures within a few days. The statements instead support improving middle schools, increasing access to tutoring and administering the SHSAT to all eighth-graders during the school day, rather than requiring students to register and take the test on the weekend.
Education activist David Lee noted that the bill, which seeks to increase the number of criteria to include middle school GPAs, school attendance records and state standardized test scores does not mention how each will be weighted. He also notes that it concentrates power over admissions with the Department of Education which means that each successive chancellor can change the policy.
He claims such a complicated policy would baffle parents who do not speak English and harm those who cannot afford to send their children to extracurricular activities.
Anita Astupuma, the mother of a recent Stuyvesant graduate, lambasted the idea of using multiple criteria to apply to high school because they are used in the college admissions process, and eighth-graders are not mature enough to handle such a convoluted system.
“We know how much pressure, work, tears goes with applying to college.” she said. “If you’ve been to college, you know that applying to college was hell. It’s not fair for the kids.”
“For many families entrance to the specialized high schools has been the only way of getting their families out of poverty and the issues faced by immigrants in our beloved city,” said Ivan Khan, who runs a tutoring service. “The sad reality is that New York city’s school system is failing in many local communities.”
A second bill was introduced last Monday, which posits using a proportional allocation of seats based on the population of each borough. Stanley Ng, a parent from Brooklyn, brought data to the meeting which demonstrates that Queens would be harmed by the proposal. Currently 1,919 students from Queens attend specialized high schools, or 36 percent of the enrollment. A proportional allocation would only afford Queens 27 percent, a reduction of about 500 seats.
That could mean even more overcrowding in schools here. Ng added the shortages for each district and found that Queens is short 7,111 seats, or roughly 1,777 freshman seats. “If they change the criteria, your kids may not even be able to stay in Queens anymore,” he said. “This is not about race, it’s about data. The Queens area will be impacted the most.”
Townsend Harris, which uses multiple admissions criteria, receives about 5,000 applications a year, but only extends 500 offers.
Ethel Chen, a member of the coalition, among others advocated for strong political action, namely rallying in Albany, like the charter school movement. Many speakers also referred to the low vote turnout among the Asian-American community, as a reason politicians often take it for granted and don’t vote in its members’ interests.
While everyone at the meeting supported maintaining the SHSAT, opinions about the importance of diversity at the schools varied.
Chen noted that diversity is not a factor in determining who passes the bar exam, professional engineers exam or medical school exams. “Do you talk about or think about diversity?” she asked. “When you choose a doctor to be your family doctor, they don’t talk about that. That’s why we should help our children to do better and not talk about diversity. That’s empty talk.”
One Stuyvesant alum who came from Brooklyn said she was “troubled by the rhetoric” and “disagreed strongly” with the notion that diversity is irrelevant. She said she opposed the bills for being “a politically expedient solution to a much much deeper problem,” referring to the quality of K-8 education in many districts.
Santiago Munoz, the student who set the World Record for longest commute to school when he spent about two hours and 45 minutes taking two trains and two buses from Far Rockaway to Bronx Science and back every day, spoke of his experiences.
“I’m Hispanic and I know the city’s trying to bring more minorities into the schools and I’m totally with that,” Munoz said. “However, I don’t think taking away the SHSAT is the correct thing. ...
“If you want to solve the problem, you have to allow blacks and hispanics more chances and let the students themselves study for the test. The SHSAT, although it has it’s flaws, is a great way to assess a person’s intelligence.”
Speaker Alan Peng, a seventh-grader, brought up the American dream in his remarks.
“Two hundred years ago this country was created on the foundation of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, Alan said. “A byproduct of this creation was the American Dream. A major part of the American Dream is the idea that as long as you work hard, you can succeed.
“If a student works hard, he will get into the high school that he wants to get into and I believe that no one should take the American Dream away from the American people.”