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New Bill Introduced to Repeal Specialized High School Admissions Exam

FEI LU, HOST: New York City’s eight specialized high schools are under fire for the lack of diversity in the student body.

Critics say the schools don’t enroll enough Black and Latinx students.

They say the Specialized High School Admissions Test is the reason why.

A state law mandates the test, but activists recently introduced a bill to repeal that legislation, and return control of the city schools to the city itself.

Hayley Zhao reports.

HAYLEY ZHAO, BYLINE: It’s four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. School’s out, but about thirty student activists from all over the city are gathered outside of Stuyvesant High. Tatyana Cruz is a junior at Brooklyn Tech. She is holding a black canvas sign that says “Repeal Hecht-Calandra. AbolishSHSAT.”

TATYANA CRUZ: We're trying to get more physical action out there, you know? Cause there's a lot of infographics and there's a lot of information, but there's not enough action.

ZHAO: Cruz is protesting with student advocacy group Teens Take Charge. The group is working with politicians in Albany to repeal the Hecht-Calandra Act. Back in the 1970s, the Act made the Specialized High School Admissions Test the sole criteria for admissions to New York’s eight specialized high schools. Cruz took the test three years ago.

CRUZ:I would spend summers like before, beforehand, another program trying to study for the exam and I would cancer, vacations. I didn't really spend time with my family to study for this test. I ended up not passing anyway.

ZHAO: Black and Latino students like Cruz make up more than two thirds of the public student body in New York City. But just nine percent of new students admitted to the city’s eight specialized schools this year were Black or Latinx. That’s the lowest rate in three years.

Mayor de Blasio and other education officials say the test is racist and furthers school segregation. In 2018, De Blasio proposed amending the act. He wanted to cancel the test and simply admit the top seven percent of students from all the city’s middle schools. Nicole Mader is a research fellow at the Center for NYC Affairs. She analysed the plan in 2019.

NICOLE MADER: If the mayor's plan was enacted and the specialized schools would be much more diverse.Um, there would be a couple thousand more black and Latin X students that would have had access to the specialized high schools. And, um, we also found. That they, they, the demographics and the sort of quality of the schools that other students would go to, instead of going to the specialized high schools was just as high.

ZHAO: Parent groups fought back hard against the plan. They said it would make the schools less rigorous and take away the chance for hard-working students to get in. The amendment died in Albany.

Taylor McGrawis an advisor to Teens Take Charge. He says this new push by advocacy groups isn’t to amend the Hecht-Calandra Act. Instead, they’ve written a bill with State Sen. Julia Salazar to repeal the act altogether, and return the power of school admissions back to the city.

TAYLOR MCGRAW: I mean right now folks from like Syracuse and Rochester, you know, places that, don't represent New York city or have they have power over this and that doesn't make any sense.

ZHAO: The bill is currently in the seven-member State Education Committee. It will need majority support to move to the floor. McGraw says Salazar and Teens Take Charge have support from three committee members so far.

MCGRAW: We obviously think this should be a top priority. It's been 50 years since this law was put on the books and there was a record, low number of black and Latin X students who got offers this year. Um, and it's clear that it's always going to be that way if they don't change this law.

ZHAO: McGraw claims his group has plenty of support in the wider assembly. The key is getting the bill through the education committee. Laura Zingmond served on the NYC Panel for Education Policy until 2016. She says increased public awareness of Black and Latinx issues will put pressure on legislators when it comes to casting their votes.

LAURA ZINGMOND: Their stances, um, are reflective of where they feel.

The public opinion that they're responsible for and usually it's the people organizing and being persistent help influence the shift in public attitude overall.if not this year, maybe next year, I do think it's moving to that way.

ZHAO: The committee has not set a date to vote on the bill. Meanwhile Teens Take Charge activists like Tatyana Cruz will keep protesting.

Cruz considers herself lucky. She failed the SHSAT but got into Brooklyn Tech through the Discovery Program. It attempts to diversify specialized high schools by reserving seats for low-income students who scored just below the cutoff line.

CRUZ: it was pretty rigorous, pretty intensive. And exhausting, you know, six weeks of math and in English, it was pretty much, um, think around five hours a day whole summer was kind of shocked that year

Despite the Discovery Program, Cruz is the only female Latinx student in her 32 person class. She says that puts an enormous amount of pressure on her to perform, just to prove that she deserves a place there.

Hayley Zhao, Columbia Radio News.


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