Minority Students Decline in Top New York Schools
By ELISSA GOOTMAN
Published: August 18, 2006
More than a decade after the city created a special institute to prepare black and Hispanic students for the mind-bendingly difficult test that determines who gets into New York’s three most elite specialized high schools, the percentage of such students has not only failed to rise, it has declined.
The drop at Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School mirrors a trend recently reported at three of the City University of New York’s five most prestigious colleges, where the proportion of black students has dropped significantly in the six years since rigorous admissions policies were adopted.
The changes indicate that even as New York City has started to bridge the racial achievement gap in the earlier grades, it has not been able to make similar headway at top public high schools and colleges. Asian enrollment at all three high schools has soared over the decade, while white enrollment has declined at two of the three schools.
City education officials said they were at a loss to explain the changes at the three high schools despite years of efforts to broaden the applicant pools.
Andres Alonso, the city’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, described the figures as “extraordinarily surprising,” even though they are the Department of Education’s numbers. Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott called the schools “true gems of our system,” saying, “We have to make sure they’re open to all of our students.”
Robert Jackson, the chairman of the City Council education committee, who is from Washington Heights, was more pointed in his criticism.
“The statistics clearly show that black New Yorkers are being shut out,” he said. “If we’re looking to be inclusive in the greatest city in the world, I would think that the chancellor and every educator has to ask themselves why is this, and what do we need to do to reverse that. Is it institutional racism or is it something else?”
Debate over the racial composition of the city’s specialized schools, and the schools’ reliance not on interviews or grades but rather on a test alone to determine admissions, has captivated New York for decades.
Supporters of the specialized exam, which tests verbal and math skills, say it ensures that admissions are based on merit, while critics argue that elite colleges would never judge applicants on test results alone.
Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has not challenged the testing system, but he has expanded the preparatory program, known as the Specialized High School Institute, and created dozens of new small high schools to broaden opportunity. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has also promised to create more elite high schools.
Still, during 2005-6, blacks made up 4.8 percent of the Bronx Science student body, according to city figures, down from 11.8 percent in 1994-95, when the institute was created. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the proportion of black students has declined to 14.9 percent from 37.3 percent 11 years ago, and at Stuyvesant, blacks now make up 2.2 percent of the student body, down from 4.4 percent.
Hispanic enrollment has also declined at the three schools, as has white enrollment at two of the three although it has risen at Brooklyn Tech. At the same time, the Asian population has reached as high as 60.6 percent at Bronx Science, up from 40.8 percent 11 years ago. Dr. Alonso said he could not explain the numbers without more information about how many black and Hispanic eighth graders take the specialized high school exam, and how many may favor other top city schools that are smaller or closer to home. He said he would insist that the department start collecting such information.
“My immediate question is, this is a far greater variance than the data shows in terms of our test scores, so what is going on here?” he said.
Over all, Hispanic students are the largest group in the city’s schools at 36.7 percent, and black students are next at 34.7 percent. The 1.1 million-student system is 14.3 percent Asian and 14.2 percent white.
In the 1960’s, civil rights groups and some education officials charged that admissions tests were racially biased and that they screened out black and Puerto Rican children. The tests had strong defenders, though, and in 1971, the State Legislature passed a law requiring that entrance to the specialized schools be determined by competitive examination alone.
Now parents, educators and academics explain the racial makeup of the schools by pointing to a variety of factors, including increasing competition from an influx of immigrants, paltry guidance counseling at many middle schools with predominantly low-income students, the hiring of private tutors by the middle class and continued use of the admissions test alone.
Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, called the schools’ racial compositions “absurd,” saying, “I don’t think someone would want to hire somebody just on the basis of a test score, and we don’t admit them to a great college on the basis of a test score, and we shouldn’t admit them to a great high school on that basis.”
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, however, said the enrollment figures showed “that we’re not yet managing to close the achievement gap and that this remains a serious problem for our schools, for our families and for our culture.”
“But we shouldn’t be blaming the messenger,” she said. “It’s not the specialized schools’ fault for maintaining legitimately high standards.”
Angela M. Howard, who graduated from Stuyvesant in 1982 and founded the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Association two years ago, after noticing fewer and fewer black faces at Stuyvesant events, said she opposed changing the admissions system but was trying to start a mentoring program.
“Let’s face it — the playing field isn’t level,” she said. “People are paying tons of money to get their kids tutored to go to Stuyvesant.”
For years, exclusive public schools throughout the country have been places where advocates of strict, color-blind standards have clashed with proponents of racial diversity.
Courts imposed a race-based admissions system on the Boston Latin School, but a federal appeals court struck the system down. In the 1990’s, Chinese-American families whose children were rejected from San Francisco’s selective Lowell High School sued; the resulting settlement reversed a citywide admissions system that took race into account.
New York’s Specialized High School Institute was designed to enlarge the pool of black and Hispanic candidates eligible for admission to the selective schools by giving them extra lessons and test-taking tips, without resorting to the kinds of preferences that had drawn lawsuits elsewhere.
Chancellor Klein has expanded the institute, which started with one location and 419 students. It has grown to 17 locations and 3,781 students, who spend 16 months preparing for the test, starting in the summer after sixth grade.
The chancellor is also trying to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students participating in the institute, which officials said dwindled in the earlier years of the program as large numbers of white and Asian students signed on.
“The intended goal going back to 1995 was not realized,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, the Department of Education’s executive director of secondary schools. “If a kid is a nonminority, they’re supposed to be excluded, but there are a couple of places where we’ve seen quite a bit of pushback.”
In the hallowed, sunlit classrooms of Stuyvesant itself, students from Manhattan and the Bronx spent the summer sweating over scientific concepts, math formulas and new vocabulary words.
Melanie Tirado, 12, said the very act of striding through Stuyvesant’s gleaming hallways made her feel smart.
“You can be like, ‘I could be here, I could be in these desks in a year or two,’ ” she said during her lunch break one day.
For Yusrullah Abdul-MalikDunn, 12, who got an “overall excellence” medal at his sixth-grade graduation, the experience has been humbling.
Yusrullah’s teacher at Public School 108 had called him a “walking dictionary,” but in the first seven pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book he read for the institute, he found 71 new vocabulary words.
“My science teacher told me we are all big fishes in our own pond, but now we’re inside a bigger pond,” he said.
Since 2002, students like Yusrullah can also pick from three new, small specialized schools: the Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. These schools have larger proportions of black and Hispanic students, but even in their short lives, the schools’ black enrollment has declined. Hispanic enrollment has climbed at two of the three.
The Queens school opened with a student body that was 30.1 percent black and 13.6 percent Hispanic. In the most recent school year, those numbers were down to 19.7 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively.