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A change in admissions policy transforms HS prep program

Responding to criticisms of a program created to diversify the city’s elite high schools, school officials are highlighting a surprising fact: The program no longer gives special preference to the black and Hispanic students it was built to serve.

The city launched the Specialized High School Institute in 1995 to help get more black and Hispanic students admitted to schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Black and Hispanic specialized high school applicants who attended the institute have been more likely to get in than those who didn’t attend.

But fewer black and Hispanic students have gotten that chance since a 2007 lawsuit forced the city to give equal access to the program to all students. Department officials drew attention to the policy change after the Daily News reported last week that fewer black and Latino students who completed the program last year scored high enough on the city’s high school exam to be admitted to elite schools.

Indeed, the new policy appears to have transformed the makeup of the institute. Between 2009, when students admitted prior to the policy change completed the program, and 2010, Hispanic enrollment dropped by more than half, from 414 to 155, while Asian enrollment more than doubled, from 156 to 481.

The change followed a lawsuit by a group of white and Asian parents calling the institute’s original admissions policy discriminatory. At the time, the program limited admission of white and Asian students to those with a family income below $37,000, but set no restrictions on black and Hispanic students’ family incomes. That June, in a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court had deemed policies that used race to assign students to schools unconstitutional.

The city responded by switching the institute’s admissions policy to focus on family income levels, rather than race. Now, all applicants must be poor — that is, eligible for free lunch — regardless of their race.

School officials said the enrollment shift followed the change in admissions policy. “When the program no longer prioritized non-white and non-Asian [students], the Asian admission rate was much higher,” spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld wrote in an e-mail.

This year, Asian students made up 47 percent of those admitted to specialized high schools. Hispanic students made up 7 percent, and black students made up 6 percent.