Diversity Delayed

NYC is offering the SHSAT during school hours to boost diversity, but it’s mostly benefitting white and Asian students

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

Students at dozens of middle schools across the city will take the Specialized High School Admissions Test on Thursday as part of an initiative to expand access for underrepresented students at the city’s specialized high schools. But data released by the education department shows that the program is not having its intended effect.

The initiative, started two years ago and expanded this admissions cycle, allows students to take the SHSAT during the school day, instead of on a weekend. The idea is that by offering the exam during school hours, and giving schools extra test preparation materials, black and Hispanic students and other underrepresented groups are more likely to take the test and have a shot at attending a specialized school.

Yet an analysis of the city data, which Chalkbeat requested, shows the program is overwhelmingly benefitting white and Asian students — groups that already dominate admissions to those schools.

At the 15 schools that administered the SHSAT during the school day last year, Asian students accounted for 68 percent of acceptances to attend specialized high schools. Overall, Asian students represented just over half of offers to specialized schools last year, which means that Asian students were even more likely to benefit from their schools offering the test during the day. (Just 16 percent of the city’s students are Asian.)

By contrast, Hispanic students accounted for just under 11 percent of offers at schools that administered the exam during the day last year, slightly better than the 6 percent who received offers during the overall testing process. Another 13 percent of offers went to white students. So few black students received offers through the program, the education department redacted the data citing privacy laws. Black and Hispanic students are nearly 67 percent of the city’s overall student body.

“What I call supply-side initiatives — more prep, better access to the test — the history of all these initiatives is they tend to get taken advantage of by the people who already do well on the tests,” said Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society who has studied specialized high school admissions.

Despite those results, city officials are expanding the program significantly this year. Fifty middle schools across the city are offering the exam during the day on Thursday, up from 15 last year.

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, defended the decision to expand the program. He noted that it has successfully boosted the number of students who take the SHSAT at participating schools by roughly 40 percent and pointed to figures that show the program has boosted the share of black, Hispanic, and low-income students who take the exam.

Hispanic students, for instance, made up 38 percent of the students who took the SHSAT during the school day last year; overall, just 23 percent of students who take the exam are Hispanic.

Mantell said the program “may show more impact as schools participate in the program for two or more years.”

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a more aggressive push to integrate specialized high schools by eliminating the SHSAT as the sole entrance exam at eight specialized high schools, which include Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. In its place, the city plans to offer a spot at a specialized school to the top 7 percent of students at every middle school — a move that officials say will significantly boost the share of black and Hispanic students at the schools.

“While it’s a start to see an increase in testers and offers at SHSAT School Day schools, the fact is: a single test shouldn’t determine a student’s future,” Mantell said in a statement.

Overall, just 10.4 percent of offers to eight specialized high school went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent two-thirds of the city’s students, a number that hasn’t budged significantly in years.

Offering the SHSAT during the school day isn’t the only diversity initiative aimed at specialized high schools to fall flat. A separate program that offers admission to students who just missed the testing cutoff has also tended to benefit white and Asian students over black and Hispanic ones. (The city plans to expand that program, too, but with tweaks designed to enroll more underrepresented students.)

Some educators at schools that offer the SHSAT during the school day say there are benefits beyond increasing the number of students who get offers to specialized schools. At J.H.S. 118 in the Bronx, which is offering the exam during the school day Thursday, roughly 81 percent of students are black or Hispanic. Through the program, the school has also been able to offer SHSAT test prep to any student who wants it; before, it was limited to the school’s strongest students.

“We’re generally enthusiastic about what the program offers to our kids and what it tells our kids about who they are,” said Giulia Cox, the school’s principal, arguing it signals to a wider group of students that they have a shot at the most competitive high schools.

But even though the school boosted the number of students taking the exam by 38 percent (or 74 students) after offering the SHSAT during the day, only two more students received offers to a specialized school. Cox acknowledged the number of offers haven’t jumped much, but said the practice can still help students academically and give them a leg up in their test-taking skills.

“Maybe they don’t get an offer to a specialized high school,” she said, “but [they] are more prepared.”

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.