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Bringing Diversity to New York City's Specialized High Schools

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Recently, some 28,000 New York City families waited nervously to receive a letter that would determine the future for their kids.

With trembling hands, they opened envelopes, hoping and praying their eighth graders gained admission to the crème de la crème of New York City's public high schools: the much-vaunted Specialized High Schools. Schools like Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, or Brooklyn Tech, or my own alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science.

Of the approximately 12,500 Black and Latino families among them, more than 90 percent, or about 12,000, were disappointed by what they read.

The Specialized High schools are the equivalent of New York City's Ivy League. Admittance to these schools is a ticket to success. They bring an almost certain guarantee of high school graduation, in a city where the graduation rate is 65 percent, and an almost certain guarantee of college acceptance. More than a quarter of the graduates of Stuyvesant and Bronx Science go on to university in the real Ivy Leagues, at Harvard, and Yale, and Brown, or other top tier colleges.

Even though more and more Black and Latino kids have been taking the Specialized High School exam every year -- and despite a slight uptick this year -- relatively few of them find their way into the best schools.

At the most competitive Specialized High Schools -- Stuyvesant and Bronx Science -- the numbers are even more stark. Right now at Bronx Science, in a student body of 3,005, there are only 320 Black and Latino students, or just 11 percent. At Stuyvesant, of 3,295 students, 120 are Black and Latino, or less than 4 percent. Yet Black and Latino students make up some 69 percent of the total New York City Public High School population.

What are the admissions barriers for minorities to the Specialized High Schools and how can we tear them down? Today, getting into a Specialized High School requires one thing and one thing alone: an outstanding performance on a single, grueling test.

Many educational experts have long decried this admissions method and some good ideas have been proposed to change it.

Assemblyman Karim Camara, from the 43rd Assembly District in Brooklyn, and State Senator Adriano Espaillat, of the 31st Senate District representing parts of the Upper West Side and the Bronx, are sponsoring legislation on the state level to change the admissions criteria for the Specialized High Schools to include grade point averages and other factors, such as interviews, personal statements, and portfolios, as well as an entrance exam. Their model is, in fact, similar to the same broad admissions process used by most colleges and universities in the U.S.

Another factor that ought to be considered in the admissions process is geography. Specialized High Schools should serve students from every neighborhood -- even the most economically disadvantaged. Geographic diversity could be achieved by reserving a seat for the Valedictorian and Salutatorian, or the top five percentile, of every public middle school graduating class in the City.

While we explore legislative options to crack open admissions to the Specialized High Schools, the City should do everything possible right now to increase diversity in these important schools.

First, the City should examine the effectiveness of current support programs like the Specialized High School Institute and the summer Discovery program, which are directed at low-income students who want to prepare for entrance into the Specialized High Schools.

Secondly, the Specialized High School Test should be analyzed by an objective third party to see if the exam shows any signs of predictive bias.

Third, the City needs to boost math education among minority students and do it as early as third grade, rather than playing catch up in middle school when performance gaps have already widened.

Fourth, the City should market the Specialized High Schools in communities of color to ensure that more students and their parents know about the great opportunities these schools present.

Finally, we should expand the number of Specialized High Schools by creating new ones like the Math, Science, and Engineering School at City College of New York.

Some might find it puzzling that an Asian American would speak out on this issue. But that is precisely the point. When my family came to this country in the 1970s it was because my parents wanted so badly for my brothers and me to grow up in the American educational environment, with its creativity and innovation and its encouragement of free expression.

Entrance to the New York City Specialized High Schools should be dependent on a well-rounded assessment of a student's knowledge and skills, rather than on the ability to perform well on a single test. The exam as it is encourages the widespread "teaching to the test" that so many educational experts deplore.

As we work to bring diversity to our Specialized High Schools, let's remember that the overwhelming number of New York City students will not attend one of these eight schools. And that every student deserves to go to a great secondary school.

As our City's Chief Financial Officer, I am often asked for stock picks. My response is always the same -- education is the best long-term economic investment the City can make.

High quality education is the cure for what ails us on almost every level in our society. We need to build on the great foundation we have in New York City and pour our energy and resources into making all of our public schools the best they can possibly be -- because they are the key to spreading prosperity and bridging the great divide between the haves and have-nots.

NYC Comptroller John C. Liu is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.