Black Stuyvesant alumni rally behind program to integrate specialized high schools, but call for some tweaks

PHOTO: Creative Commons / streetcar press
The bridge to Stuyvesant High School.

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

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.