A group of black alumni from New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant high school is calling on local leaders to “remain committed” to an effort to integrate specialized high schools like the one they attended — even in the face of a recent lawsuit.
At issue: The Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for the eight elite schools.
In a letter released this week, members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative take aim at a legal challenge targeting the program, while also describing a revamp of Discovery as “the mayor’s best tool” for integrating specialized high schools now.
The group calls on the city to change who qualifies for Discovery, saying the program should include students who have lacked access to top-performing schools. Members say city leaders must also systematically boost the quality of education that black and Hispanic children receive well before they get to high school.
“To be clear, Discovery is not a complete solution; we must improve schools, so that every child will receive an excellent education,” the letter states.
Specialized high schools are among the most competitive in the city — and they are starkly segregated. Only 10 percent of students at the schools are black or Hispanic, demographic groups that together represent almost 70 percent of enrollment citywide.
A group of Asian-American families has sued to stop a planned expansion of Discovery, which would also entail new eligibility rules, arguing the proposal is discriminatory. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students across the system.
The Stuyvesant black alumni group has advocated for integration efforts for almost a decade, raising money to help prepare students for the specialized high school exam and hosting open house events targeting underrepresented students.
Their support for Discovery is not unique: other alumni, who are seen as a powerful voice in the specialized high schools debate, have also called the program an answer to the diversity problem in specialized high schools. But as graduates of color, members of the black alumni group offer a perspective that some feel has been drowned out in the controversy. Here is their letter.
In a perfect world, all schools would be excellent, and there’d be no fight for access to the “best” schools. All children would have access to the best possible education no matter their race, gender or their parents’ socioeconomic status, and assessments of aptitude and academic talent would be undistorted by differences in school quality, or access to tutoring and test prep.
Our world is not perfect, though. Our schools are wildly unequal, and access to the best high schools in the city is determined by a test that highlights that inequality.
The legislators who made the Specialized High School Admissions Test (the SHSAT) the bedrock of the specialized high school admissions process, through passage of the Hecht-Calandra Act in 1972, recognized this and provided an alternate route to admission known as Discovery. The program offered “disadvantaged” students who scored just below the cutoff for the test the opportunity to be admitted to a school after successful completion of a summer program. Although the legislature didn’t define disadvantage, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the early years after the SHSAT became institutionalized, Discovery was a means of entry for significant numbers of students of color, effectively integrating the school, and leading to a peak in Black enrollment of 12 percent in 1975.
In 1976, however, we believe the program changed. That year, it is our understanding that only one black student was admitted to Stuyvesant’s freshman class via Discovery. Eventually the program was discontinued altogether at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and this potent tool to provide access to disadvantaged students was no longer utilized. At the same time, the gifted programs in neighborhood schools, which had prepared students from every city neighborhood for admission to specialized high schools, were eliminated and replaced by centralized programs that were decidedly less diverse. The end result was a decline in black enrollment at Stuyvesant from approximately 10 percent in 1980 to less than 1 percent today.
Recently, the city education department seemed to “rediscover” Discovery. It revived the program at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and recently announced plans to dramatically expand the program, and limit it to the most economically disadvantaged students in the most economically disadvantaged schools, as one part of the mayor’s plan to increase the number of black and Latinx students who attend the specialized high schools.
After months of protests against the mayor’s plan to seek repeal of Hecht-Calandra, activists and some allegedly aggrieved parents have now turned their attention to fighting against the proposal to expand Discovery to target these most disadvantaged populations.
The named individual plaintiffs in the suit filed against the city on Dec. 13 are the parents of three students who are Asian-American who claim their children would no longer be eligible for admission through the Discovery Program under the mayor’s proposal. Their standing as litigants is questionable, however, because we have no idea whether the children in question will actually fail to make the cutoff for any of the schools, which is the basis for admission via the Discovery Program.
The parents identify themselves as a professional translator, a data scientist with a Stanford PhD, and someone who was “admitted to all of the specialized high schools and wants the same opportunity for her children.” Based on the information provided, these children seem quite privileged: enrolled in the city’s better schools, with educated and well-informed parents, so it is not clear they are “disadvantaged” in any way that would qualify their children for Discovery.
Also named as a plaintiff is the parent organization of Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School in Borough Park, also known as I.S. 187. I.S. 187 is a screened middle school that limits its applicants to residents of District 20. Its record is impressive: Last year, I.S. 187 sent 75 percent of its 275 eighth graders on to specialized high schools, an amazing achievement when most schools send none. While many of the children who attend I.S. 187 are Asian-American and many come from families in challenging financial situations, they are clearly are not disadvantaged in terms of the education they are receiving.
This highlights why the disadvantage which the Discovery program should be used to remedy should not simply be a function of race, or economics, but of opportunity. The black and Latinx children shut out of the specialized high schools are not disadvantaged because they are black and Latinx, but rather because of the circumstances they are born into, characterized by the poor educational options available in the communities where they reside. It is that historical disadvantage which we should be purposefully seeking to remedy.
Unfortunately, this lawsuit ignores the advantages afforded by having educated and well-informed parents, and by attending the city’s better schools. Countering inequality and creating equity in opportunity should be the goal of public education policy, not protecting and institutionalizing inequality.
For nearly a decade, the members of our group, the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, have worked diligently to bring attention to the ways in which the specialized high school admissions process works to the disadvantage of most public school students and to highlight ways that greater balance could be achieved. While our group has advocated that the Discovery program be structured differently — by including “educational disadvantage” within the definition used to determine eligibility, then identifying talented kids from educationally disadvantaged communities underrepresented at the specialized schools earlier in their academic careers and providing them with intensive enrichment and support before and after they take the test — we see a refocused Discovery Program as the mayor’s best tool to achieve equity in admissions at the specialized high schools now. To be clear, Discovery is not a complete solution; we must improve schools, so that every child will receive an excellent education. But if the access provided by the Discovery program is targeted to the populations which face the greatest educational disadvantage, it could provide opportunity to academically talented NYC school children from communities currently underrepresented at these schools immediately.
It is unfortunate and inconsistent with the principles this country should be striving to achieve for the plaintiffs to deny opportunity to the most disadvantaged students based on specious claims of “bias” against Asian-American students when over 60 percent of the seats at specialized high schools are occupied by Asian-American students, and they comprise over 70 percent of the student body at Stuyvesant. Creating opportunity for excluded groups and fostering diversity in our public schools is not anti-Asian animus; we would want all New Yorkers to join us in this effort to fix a broken system. We urge the city to fight back aggressively against this misguided lawsuit, and to remain committed to using the Discovery Program as a mechanism to provide opportunity for a broader cross-section of our children.
The Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative
Vanessa Bing, PhD ‘80
Oni Blackstock, MD, 95
Uché Blackstock, MD, ‘95
Carole Brown, ‘81
Sonia Cole, MD, ‘80
Michael R. Clarke, Esq. ‘79
Pamela Davis-Clarke, Esq. ‘80
Linda DeHart, ‘87
Jamil Ellis, ‘95
Ola J. Friday, Ed.L.D, ‘99
Linda M. Gadsby, Esq., ‘84
Teri Graham, ‘77
Thomas Mela, Esq., ‘61
Ann Mejias, ‘79
Leonard Noisette, Esq., ‘75
Jonathan I. Pomboza, ‘06
Heidi Reich PhD, ’85