Brooklyn Boro

As mayor pulls back from SHSAT plan, Brooklyn pols call for gifted program expansion

September 26, 2019 Paula Katinas and Meaghan McGoldrick
The first meeting of the newly formed South Brooklyn Coalition for Quality Education drew a large crowd. A parent signs his name to a sign-in sheet.  Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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The news that Mayor Bill de Blasio is suddenly open to the idea of keeping in place the admissions test for the city’s elite high schools after months of calling for its elimination elicited a swift reaction in southwest Brooklyn, the epicenter of the pro-test movement.

The New York Post reported on Wednesday that de Blasio told reporters at a roundtable with journalists that he might have to rethink scrapping the test, although he vowed to continue working toward his goal of increasing racial diversity in the city’s elite high schools like Brooklyn Tech and Bronx High School of Science.

“Some would argue that there’s a way to do it while keeping the test, and you have to have that dialogue, too,” de Blasio said, according to the Post.

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Several of the city’s specialized high schools use the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole criteria for admission.

Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of the student population in the New York City public school system, according to Department of Education figures, yet HuffPost reported earlier this year that only 4 percent of the incoming class at elite high schools would be comprised of black students.

The racial disparity has raised eyebrows in city government and among education reformers.

But as quickly as de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a proposal in 2018 to eliminate the SHSAT, efforts were mounted by Southwest Brooklyn lawmakers and parent groups to push back against the plan.

The Keep-the-SHSAT movement found a foothold in Southwest Brooklyn’s Asian community, where parents noted that a large number of Asian American students gain admission to elite high schools. They contended that scraping the test would be unfair to their kids.

Assemblymember Bill Colton, a Democrat representing Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst and Gravesend and whose district has a large population of Asian Americans, formed the South Brooklyn Coalition for Quality Education in June of 2018 to fight the mayor.

“Diversity in schools is a worthy goal, but it must be attained in the context of educational excellence,” Colton said in a statement earlier this month after an education diversity panel appointed by de Blasio called for gifted and talented programs in schools to be phased out of existence.

The School Diversity Advisory Group — a task force commissioned by the mayor in 2017 to address school segregation — took aim at the DOE’s gifted programs in an August report, alleging that the programs and screened schools (where factors like test scores and attendance weigh heavily on the admissions process) promote racial and economic divisions by favoring families who can afford test prep.

The group proposed a phase out of the programs, which was met by criticism.

Colton, on the other hand, is advocating expanding gifted programs into all of the city’s middle schools, something he has said would give youngsters a better chance of getting into elite high schools.

Councilmember Mark Treyger, chairperson of the Education Committee, said he was pleased to hear of the mayor’s new stance.

“Mayor de Blasio needs to move on from this issue and focus on the real systemic, pressing issues facing our entire school system,” said Treyger, a Democrat representing Coney Island, Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst.

Treyger also called on de Blasio to expand gifted and talented programs.

Adele Doyle, president of the Community Education Council of School District 20, said the mayor should be looking at the city’s education system as a whole, not just the SHSAT.

“To focus just on the SHSAT is scapegoating,” she said. “Our whole education system is flawed. It doesn’t reflect 21st-century learning. It needs a new approach.”

If the education standards are raised for all students, then the city will see more minority youngsters being accepted into elite high school, Doyle predicted. “We must believe in our students of color and believe in their ability,” she said.

The political fallout from the SHSAT controversial is showing no signs of slowing down.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican representing parts of Bay Ridge and Staten Island, called on de Blasio to fire Carranza.

“After creating this issue in the first place, the mayor now seems to have had a change of heart and if he’s sincere, he should immediately fire Chancellor Richard Carranza for saying that parents who objected to the plan were racist,” Malliotakis said.

At a town hall sponsored by the Community Education Council of School District 20 in April, Carranza had a tense exchange with member Artemis Lekakis after Lekakis questioned if the reputations of elite high schools would be affected “once the quality of the student body is changed somehow.”

Carrazana took offense at the remark. “As a man of color, I’m going to call you on your language,” he told Lekakis.

The view is different on the other end of the borough, where elected officials supported the plan to scrap the SHSAT.

Assemblymember Charles Barron — who represents East New York and Brownsville and sponsored a bill to eliminate the test in the Assembly — remains confident that time is running out for the exam.

“I firmly believe that it’s important for us to build on the momentum we had in the last session,” Barron said.

Before 2018-2019 session ended, the Assembly’s Education Committee voted 16-12 in support of Barron’s bill. It ended in the Rules Committee for the second time in a row — but this time, with more support than before. This coming session, he says, he and supporters will be taking another approach.

“We’re going to try and repeal the Calandra Bill, which was put forth in 1971 with a racist intent to do just what it eventually did — block black and brown students from coming into the specialized high schools,” he said. “By repealing that, you eliminate the test, and then it’s on the city to make the decision as to what they’re going to do next.”

In the meantime, Barron said, he plans on keeping the pressure on the mayor.

“This shouldn’t be up to him,” he said. “This should be up to a collective body of people, and that’s why we’re going to keep his feet to the fire on this one.”

Correction (9/27 at 9 a.m): An earlier version of this article stated that the School Diversity Advisory Group recommended eliminating the SHSAT. They did not; they recommended phasing out gifted and talented programs. The story has been updated. The Eagle regrets the error.

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  1. The city needs to dramatically expand gifted programs. The goal should be 20 Stuyvesants across the city. And the city should NEVER try and dilute the quality of its best schools. There is nothing remotely “progressive” about lowering admissions requirements or school quality.