special law

City endorses legislative push to diversify elite high schools

PHOTO: Stuyvesant High School

The de Blasio administration is endorsing a renewed push to change how the city’s most elite public schools accept students.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña backed a bill on Monday that would require the city’s specialized high schools to use more than a single test score as their student admissions criteria, an effort grounded in the administration’s desire to increase diversity within the eight schools and reduce the emphasis on testing.

“As the Chancellor has said before, a student is more than the result of one exam,” Devora Kaye said in a statement.

The endorsement comes just hours after state lawmakers unveiled a bill at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters that would allow the Specialized High School Admissions Test to count alongside attendance, class grades, and state exam scores in admissions decisions. It was also the first clear signal of how the city will move forward with de Blasio’s campaign promise to change the admissions standards, since de Blasio and Fariña have offered few details about preferred alternatives in their first months in office.

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said in April.

With just days left in the state legislative sessions, the efforts are mostly symbolic. Even the bill’s sponsor, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education subcommittee, acknowledged that passage might have a better chance next year.

Critics of the single-test standard have long protested that smart students who don’t have access to high-quality elementary or middle schools, or who can’t afford pricey test-preparation programs, are at a disadvantage. And many of the specialized schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Staten Island Technical High School, are among the high schools that perennially serve the lowest number of black and Hispanic students in the city.

The specialized high schools enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, a racial gap that has widened at some of the schools in recent years. This year, 11 percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school student population. At Stuyvesant High School, for instance, just 3 percent of seats were offered to black and Hispanic students.

But the schools have many defenders who say the system is a bastion of egalitarianism.

“The advantage of using the test is that it eliminates favoritism and offers every child, in a simple way, to get in,” said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which opposes the legislation.

A single-test admission system for the city’s specialized high schools has been used, and criticized, for decades. The admissions process for the city’s top two high schools was enshrined in state law in 1971, and lawmakers eventually added one more school, Brooklyn Technical.

The city controls the admissions requirements at five of the city’s eight specialized high schools, but officials have said they are waiting for the state to change the law to move forward with their own policy changes. Fariña has said she has already been meeting with principals from the specialized high schools, an area of admissions policies that the administration most wants to change.

The proposed legislation would require all eight schools to use a multiple-measure approach. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, but never won support from the Bloomberg administration.

Union officials also called on the city to pour money into a summer program to better prepare disadvantaged students who traditionally struggle on the exam.

On Monday, UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted that the change would shift the admissions systems similar to those at top high schools nationwide.

“If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale, it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” Mulgrew said. “The idea that we are the anomaly in this country, where we use one single exam as the only criteria for … whether they get into these schools or not, is wrong.”

A backlash against testing has spurred some of the most recent criticism. Adriano Espaillat, a state senator running for Congress, said he sponsored the bill because the SHSAT was part of a “high-stakes testing model” that caused too much stress for families and children.

The proposed legislation was met with skepticism from many students, teachers, and alumni from specialized high schools. Supporters of the single-test approach say it is the fairest way to assess whether a student can handle the rigor of going to the city’s most demanding high schools, where high expectations and a culture of competition are pervasive.

Cary said that Brooklyn Tech’s alumni are open to reviewing new admissions criteria for the schools, including whether the admissions tests give students who prepare for the test a leg up. But he said nothing should be done until proposed changes are discussed publicly.

Tesa Wilson, whose daughter is a sophomore at Stuyvesant, noted that changes to the admissions system don’t address the educational inequities that emerge earlier in a student’s life.

“If you’re looking to do advanced work in high school, that’s a trajectory you need to be on starting in sixth grade,” said Wilson, who is also the president of District 14’s Community Education Council. “Most parents, they’re not even thinking about high school placement until eighth grade and by then it is too late. You’ve already missed the bus.”

At Stuyvesant on Monday, students were split on the admissions issue.

“I think it would have a positive effect for people who can’t afford tutoring,” said Elias Saric, a sophomore. “Lots of people just get in because they have money for tutoring. But if you can perform well in school and be involved in the community, that doesn’t involve money, but it shows your positive qualities.”

Others said Stuyvesant was more diverse than it appears, and its student body had a high proportion of first-generation immigrants from Asian countries.

Joanna Pan, a sophomore, said she personally liked an admissions policy that would add more diversity,

“Personally, I think that it’s better, but honestly, for Stuy you should get a higher test score to get in here because the workload is way too much. Even if they can help the community, it doesn’t mean that they’re able to pass all of the grades,” she said.

There was also fear that changing the admissions standards would affect the school’s overall quality and negatively affect other student minority groups. “Asian immigrants—who make up the majority of the school’s population—would be indirectly discriminated against,” said Jack Cahn, a senior.

Assembly Member Karim Camara, one of the bill’s sponsors, said those fears were misguided.

This is not about watering down the standards, it’s not about making it subjective, so teachers or principals pick their favorite students,” said Camara. “This is not about ensuring a certain percentage of students of any ethnic group. This is about identifying students or merit, and again multiple measures is really the only way to activate that.”

Sources said that they did not expect the bill to pass during the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, and the bill was intended to apply pressure to New York City lawmakers whose constituents might push back against efforts to eliminate the current admissions system.

“We will discuss it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede