Tahseen Chowdhury’s path to one of New York City’s top high schools began almost as soon as he started school. Growing up in Queens as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, he remembers community newspapers celebrating students who had been accepted to the city’s specialized high schools, where admission is governed by a single test.
“You would see pages and pages of students who got accepted,” Chowdhury said. “I knew about Stuyvesant when I was in kindergarten.”
But Stuyvesant and schools like it enroll disproportionately few black and Hispanic students. That’s one of many reasons Chowdhury, age 16, is mounting a long-shot bid for state Senate. He hopes to unseat Jose Peralta, a Queens Senator who caucuses with Republicans as part of the Independent Democratic Conference — and to improve education in the process.
His odds of getting elected are slim at best, but his campaign has the trappings of a more serious run: a website with over a dozen policy positions, glossy photos of interactions with constituents, and a small army of campaign staffers with titles like “executive assistant and events coordinator” and “director of public relations.”
Chowdhury’s campaign is heavy on ideas for improving the city’s education system, so Chalkbeat caught up with him recently (after several emails with his executive assistant) about three of his education proposals.
1. Give students a stronger voice in the policymaking process
Ask Chowdhury when he decided to run for state senate, and he’ll rattle off a story about how he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a state legislator to support giving students a vote on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.
The PEP votes on everything from school closures to professional development contracts, and its two current student members are not allowed to vote — something Chowdhury wants to change.
Even if student members were allowed to vote, the PEP would still be controlled by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appoints a majority of its members. But Chowdhury said the point of letting the students vote would be to force the city to take their voices seriously, rather than completely shifting the balance of power on the board.
The non-voting student representatives often aren’t involved in the panel’s public conversations, Chowdhury noted. Giving them a vote, he said, “would open up the amount of discourse that happens in those meetings.”
2. Launch a new school desegregation pilot
New York City schools are heavily segregated, and education officials have launched some small-scale efforts to encourage schools to enroll a wider mix of students. A “bigger vision” plan is on the way. Chowdhury has his own idea: He wants to start a pilot program that would enroll students at a school by lottery, essentially eliminating any screening method based on past academic performance.
But when it comes to specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, which admit students based on a single exam and enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, Chowdhury said he would not advocate for a similar diversity plan.
“Lifting the screen destroys what the goal of Stuyvesant was: … to create a vibrant culture, a vibrant community of intelligent students,” he said. “I want to make sure that’s being protected.”
3. Diversify specialized high schools
Chowdhury said he is committed to diversifying specialized high schools, but the key to doing so, he said, involves raising awareness about the Specialized High School Admissions Test, the sole entrance requirement — not eliminating it.
Making the test more accessible is already part of the city’s approach to diversifying the schools, which has included offering the SHSAT in underrepresented communities during the school day, and boosting public test prep programs. Despite recent efforts, however, there has been virtually no change in the number of black or hispanic students offered admission to the city’s elite high schools.