The New York Times published a lengthy article about New York City’s complicated and byzantine high school admissions process, which was launched 14 years ago to give choice to every student. With few (if any) exceptions, neighborhood high schools were a thing of the past. Students went to school fairs and scanned a lengthy catalogue to review the offerings of hundreds of high schools across the city. Zip code mattered not at all. Some schools had specific entry requirements, such as a difficult entrance examination or a talent audition. Most were open admissions. Now, a generation later, the results are in:
Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities.
There is no doubt that the changes yielded meaningful improvements. The high school graduation rate is up more than 20 points since 2005, as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has built on Mr. Bloomberg’s gains. The graduation gap between white and black or Hispanic students, while still significant and troubling, has narrowed.
But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school.
Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools — a situation that school choice was supposed to ease.
The average black or Hispanic student attends an elementary school where 80% of his or her classmates are black or Hispanic.
The average black or Hispanic students attends a high school where 79% of his or her classmates are black or Hispanic.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admissions requirements — a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, open houses. And getting into the best schools, where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average.
Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian, according to an in-depth analysis of acceptance data and graduation rates conducted for The New York Times by Measure of America, an arm of the Social Science Research Council. At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children like the ones at Pelham Gardens are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower.
While top middle schools in a handful of districts groom children for competitive high schools that send graduates to the Ivy League, most middle schools, especially in the Bronx, funnel children to high schools that do not prepare them for college.
The roots of these divisions are tangled and complex. Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.
Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have.
The New York City public schools are highly segregated. The demographics are challenging. According to a report from The Century Foundation, the city school system is predominantly black and Hispanic (and has been since 1966, when whites became a minority): As of 2015, citywide student demographics2 were 27.1 percent black, 15.5 percent Asian, 40.5 percent Hispanic, 14.8 percent white, and 2.1 percent identified as “other.” Nearly 77 percent of students were classified as living in poverty, while 12.5 percent were identified as English language learners, and 18.7 percent as students with disabilities. With a total enrollment of 1.1 million students, of whom only 14.8% are white, it is hard to see racial balance, except in isolated instances, because the opportunities are limited.
The choice system is difficult to maneuver, even with the help of a guidance counselor. Eighty thousand students apply to 439 schools, broken up into over 775 programs. When Michael Bloomberg took office as mayor, the city had 110 high schools, most of them enrolling thousands of students. Most students went to their zoned high schools. Bloomberg eliminated zoned high schools and embraced small high schools, with the support of the Gates Foundation.
Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.
The process can become like a second job for some parents as they arm themselves with folders, spreadsheets and consultants who earn hundreds of dollars an hour to guide them. But most families in the public school system have neither the flexibility nor the resources to match that arsenal….
The citywide graduation rate for all kinds of high schools is 72.6 percent, according to the Education Department. But that average masks sharp variations between schools based on their admissions methods. When Measure of America analyzed the rate for each method, it found that selectivity and graduation rates declined essentially in lock step, and that as graduation rates fell, the students were more likely to be poor and black or Hispanic…
Kristen Lewis, one of the directors of Measure of America, said the data revealed, in essence, two separate public school systems operating in the city. There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse…
An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that half of all students who got top scores on state tests came from just 45 middle schools out of more than 500. And 60 percent of students who went to specialized high schools came from those same 45 schools. None of those middle schools are in the Bronx.
The Times’ article focused on a middle school in the Bronx called Pelham Gardens. About 95 percent of the middle school’s students are black or Hispanic, many of them the children of Jamaican immigrants or immigrants themselves. Most of them come from poor families…
Last year, 146 seventh graders at Pelham Gardens took the state tests. On the English exam, 29 passed, which requires a score of at least 3 out of 4. Fifteen did that well in math. Only seven scored at least a 3 on both tests.
This means that a majority of the children had no real chance of getting into the most selective schools, like Manhattan/Hunter Science High School or Townsend Harris High School in Queens, where students must have a 3 or higher on the tests. The high school directory lists 29 programs in the city that did not accept anyone with a score lower than 3 on the math exam.
In a system with 1.1 million students, change is difficult. School segregation tends, inevitably, to mirror housing segregation. Housing segregation tends to reflect family income ad deliberate government policy decisions made decades ago when locating large housing projects. The choice plan assumed that students would be freed form the constraints of their zip code and that choice would promote desegregation. As the article shows, it has not.
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