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Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

Stuyvesant High School is one of the city’s most sought-after specialized high schools.

Alex Zimmerman

NYC City Council will consider task force on changing specialized high school admissions

The City Council could vote Wednesday to create a task force aimed at diversifying the city’s specialized high schools by changing how students are admitted. 

The task force bill passed through the City Council’s education committee on Tuesday with an 11-1 vote. (Five others were absent.)

Proposed in March by Speaker Corey Johnson, the task force would be responsible for coming up with diversity recommendations by May 2020. Their potential solutions could include scrapping the schools’ controversial admissions exam, considering new ways to admit students, and changing existing city programs aimed at diversifying the schools, such as Discovery, which admits students from low-income families who score just below the exam cutoff.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged needing a new strategy to diversify the specialized high schools, after his plan to eliminate the test and admit top middle school students from across the city failed for a second year in the state legislature. (Changes to admissions policies at the most populous of specialized high schools — Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant — are written into state law, and must be approved by state lawmakers.)

The specialized high schools are disproportionately white and Asian, and outrage over how few black and Hispanic students have been admitted has boiled for years — with critics of the current admissions policies saying that pricey test prep gives some students a leg up. Proposed solutions, however, have often sparked messy debates centered on politics and race. 

State lawmakers, such as Queens Sen. John Liu and Assembly Education Chair Michael Benedetto, held a hearing and forums this past spring to hear from the community following renewed anger when new admissions data was released, showing, for example, that only seven black students were offered spots at Stuyvesant. But beyond that, lawmakers have not made any major legislative moves. It’s also unclear if and how heavily the legislature would weigh the task force’s recommendations.

The goal of the proposed task force is to “ensure that there is a comprehensive, thoughtful analysis of the future of admissions at specialized high schools that takes into account the input of all stakeholders,“ a council spokesperson said in an email. 

Councilman Mark Treyger, a co-sponsor of the City Council bill, said this task force would be different from what the city has already done because it’s not a “top-down” approach. He cited criticism of de Blasio for not collecting input from families and elected officials when he rolled out his plan in June 2018 — something the mayor has acknowledged could have been better.

“I feel we need to have a bottom-up conversation,” Treyger, chair of the education committee, said Tuesday after the bill was advanced. “We need to hear from everyone.” 

The task force would be required to hold one formal public hearing. 

But it remains unclear how this process would bring about any new community consensus. The multiple state-led forums yielded little, if any, common ground. 

On Tuesday the education department pointed to measures it has taken, such as expanding the Discovery program and calling tens of thousands of families in underrepresented districts to inform them about the test — initiatives that have not succeeded in diversifying the schools. 

“The status quo is unacceptable, and we’re committed to working with communities across the City to chart the best path forward for our students and families,” said Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “We’ve invested in initiatives to expand outreach, and look forward to working with the task force.”  

Many integration advocates support the mayor’s plan, which studies have found would quickly diversify specialized schools. Others argue that getting rid of a “race-blind” test would unfairly elbow out white and Asian families, who receive the most offers to these schools. Some argue that the real problem to be solved is fixing instruction at the city’s elementary schools and middle schools; others worry that admitting top middle school students would water down the academics at specialized high schools — an argument that integration proponents, including Chancellor Richard Carranza, have called racist.

The task force earned the support of the Education Equity Campaign, which wants to keep in place the admissions test, and supports expanding public test preparation, adding gifted and talented programs at, and creating more specialized high schools. 

“We hope the council will use this as an opportunity to appoint members who reflect the views of a majority of black and brown New York City parents: which is that we need a comprehensive plan—like the one our campaign has proposed—to lift up students and tackle the shameful inequities throughout our public school system,” Rev. Kirsten Foy, one of the group’s leaders, said in a statement.

If passed, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration would have considerable say over shaping the 19-member group. The mayor and Carranza, or their respective designees, would each get a seat. The mayor would also choose nine more members, which must include a parent, a teacher, and four additional education department employees who have expertise in admissions, child development, and testing. 

Johnson or his designee would also get a seat, and the speaker would choose the remaining seven members. Two of them must be students — one who attends a specialized high school and one who does not. A parent, three education policy experts, and a member of a specialized high schools alumni organization must also sit on the task force.