admissions season

Few black and Hispanic students admitted to top high schools, adding to calls for admissions rules changes

Few black and Hispanic students won seats in eight of the city’s specialized high schools this year, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to repeat a campaign trail declaration that the admissions process needs an overhaul.

Just 11 percent of the offers to eight of the city’s top high schools went to black and Hispanic students, though they make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders. That figure is similar to last year’s, though for some schools the number of offers to black and Hispanic students continued to fall. Just seven of 952 students accepted to Stuyvesant High School are black, and 21 are Hispanic. No black students were admitted to Staten Island Tech, down from five last year.

Students get those admissions offers based solely on their performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Civil rights groups and de Blasio himself have said that process contributes to inequity, since lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools or external test preparation,

On Tuesday, the mayor and Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled that they would be revisiting the admissions requirements—though their time frame isn’t soon enough for some.

“Over time we’re going to have a series of steps we take,” de Blasio said. “I think ultimately we need to reform the admissions system. That’s something we’d have to do with Albany.”

That’s partially true, since three of the eight specialized schools that use the exam have their admissions rules codified in state law. But the mayor could change admissions rules for the other five, including Staten Island Tech, to include other measures like student grades at any time.

Fariña said in a statement that the department will be looking into the admissions gap “in the coming months.”

Their statements represented an official shift from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who repeatedly said that the admissions process was an equitable one because all students were judged by the same criteria.

“You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be,” Bloomberg said in 2012.

To Lazar Treschan, the director of youth policy at the Community Service Society of New York,  today’s numbers were just the latest confirmation that the admissions process needs to reflect more than a test.

“Zero [black students] at Staten Island Tech and three at Lehman? It’s not like there are no black students in Staten Island and the Bronx,” Treschan said, referring to the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, which is not required by law to use the Standardized High School Admissions Test for admission. “It’s academic apartheid.”

Treschan co-authored a report last year with the the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that laid out options for a “fairer and more effective” process for determining who gets the city’s most-coveted high school seats. The report points out that most of the nation’s highest performing, selective high schools already use more than one measure to determine admission.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also filed a civil rights complaint about the specialized high school admissions process in 2012. Lawyer Monique Lin-Luse, special counsel to the education group at the Legal Defense Fund, said the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is still investigating that claim.

The civil rights complaint is one of three fronts on which the group is fighting to change the admissions policy, Lin-Luse said, including state legislation and lobbying City Hall to change the procedure for the five schools in their control as soon as possible.

“There is a sense of urgency that decisions need to be made so so that students can prepare,” Lin-Luse said. “We shouldn’t wait another year.”

The state legislation would allow city officials to determine the admissions criteria for Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. State Assemblyman Karim Camara sponsored the bill in the Assembly, where it has stalled for the last two years. But Camara said today that he’s hopeful that de Blasio’s support could help push a more ambitious, amended version through the legislature.

“Over the next few weeks we will be announcing a very specific piece of legislation,” Camara said. “What we have now is a plan that we’re developing that would lay out the measures, from expanding the pool of applicants to having more notification to children of color.”

The Department of Education also announced the results of its regular high school admissions process today, and officials said that 45 percent of eighth graders who applied got into their first-choice school—down slightly from 47 percent last year. 73 percent of applicants got into one of their top three choices.

10 percent of the applicants didn’t receive a high school match and will need to go through round two, when they can rank schools that still have available seats and apply to a group of newly announced schools.

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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