End racial gap at New York City’s elite public high schools

High school students being dropped off at school.
High school students being dropped off at school. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Robin Merchant

NYC’s specialized public high schools are representative of the city itself: places of ambition, tradition and opportunity. Unfortunately, the schools are not representative insofar as they look like the city they serve.

Of the offers that went out last week for the city’s eight specialized high schools, only 4.1 percent went to black students and 6.3 percent to Hispanic students. At Stuyvesant High School, the system’s flagship, offers went out to nine black students and 14 Hispanic students out of 950.

This is not a new problem, but it is a serious one. The original specialized high schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — along with their younger peers, have long been symbols of successful meritocracy, in which children of immigrants got the chance to excel. Recently, large numbers of Asian-Americans have continued that tradition. But the relative lack of black and Hispanic students at these schools is unacceptable.

Early on, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration sought to change the admissions criteria to achieve more diversity. This direct effort seems to have stalled, though City Hall claims it is looking at many strategies to foster diversity.

Loosening requirements for admission should not be the answer here — particularly given a recent study from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools which found that including such aspects as state tests or middle school grades wouldn’t change the demographic makeup.

The administration points to improving K-8 education in general to promote diversity in high schools. This is warranted, but more can be done, sooner — from expanding tutoring programs such as the Specialized High Schools Institute to lowering barriers to taking the test. And changes to the process could retain some level of objectivity, from a revamped test that doesn’t reward test prep, to more radical changes such as places of admission set aside for top-ranked middle school students.

Fixes like these are part of a long struggle toward a more egalitarian, meritocratic society, an ultimate goal that continues to bedevil cities across the country. In that, these schools are indeed representative.