Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Freshman Class For NYC's Top Public High School Includes 7 Black Students Out Of 895


Let's talk some numbers. Let's start with the number seven. That is the number of black students admitted to next year's freshman class at New York's elite public high school, Stuyvesant. How about 895? That is the size of the entire freshman class of that elite, specialized high school. Ten percent of the students admitted to New York City's elite public schools this year are black or Hispanic, even though black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of the city's public school system. Joining us now to talk about all these disparities is Eliza Shapiro. She covers New York City schools for The New York Times. Welcome.

ELIZA SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Can you explain how you even get into one of these top-tier public high schools in New York City?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. So this test - there's a single, one-day high-stakes admissions test that you take sort of like the SAT on a Saturday morning. And if you score high enough on the test, you get a seat at one of the eight specialized high schools. Stuyvesant is the most selective and the most competitive of those eight.

CHANG: So what have been the explanations for why these stark racial disparities exist at these eight elite schools?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so I think there's two things. The biggest issue here is test prep. We've seen the same debate with the SAT and ACT, certainly, in light of the college admissions scandal. There is a huge test prep industry in New York that prepares kids who are aware of the test to master it. So test prep is one. The other, which is related, is awareness. Some kids know about these schools from the minute they're in kindergarten. Some kids learn about the existence of the specialized high school system and the test to get into them a few months before they can sit to take the test.

CHANG: So people have been talking about reforming the admissions process for years. And now Mayor Bill de Blasio has this proposal on the table. Can you talk about what it is and what's been the pushback?

SHAPIRO: Right. I mean, this is easily one of the most divisive, most controversial issues in New York City right now. Mayor Bill de Blasio not only wants to get rid of this high-stakes test but replace it with a system that's modeled on a University of Texas-type system where you take the top performers in each city middle school and automatically offer them a seat at a specialized high school. There has been enormous pushback both from alumni of the schools who are concerned that getting rid of the test would water down the schools' sort of famed academic rigor.

And there has been a lot of concern from Asian-American families and community groups that say Asian-American students would lose access to about half of the seats that they currently hold in the specialized high schools. So many of these families feel the proposal will be discriminatory against Asians and potentially pits Asian-American families against black and Latino families in a city that is mostly minority.

CHANG: Are there other big-city school districts that do better at this?

SHAPIRO: It has been a big challenge for cities across the country. Boston right now is having a renewed debate about some of its most elite public schools. San Francisco has an elite public high school known as Lowell. That system is based on grades and test scores but still paltry numbers of black and Hispanic students. So New York is not alone in struggling with how to get more black and Hispanic kids into its most elite public schools.

CHANG: We've been hearing so much about disparities in access to top-tier education. I mean, you know, last week, the college admissions scandal dominated headlines. There's been this ongoing litigation over Harvard's treatment of Asian-American applicants. How would you say this story about New York City public high schools fits into this larger conversation we've been having?

SHAPIRO: I would say it helps raise the stakes of this debate. What we're really asking is who deserves admission into the best public schools in this country and the best, quote-unquote, "private universities?" And it just seems like that debate, which has always, of course, been a facet of American life, but it seems like that debate is accelerating. And the outrage on both sides about the Stuyvesant numbers and the specialized high schools is only going to expand that debate towards elite public schools beyond just institutions of higher education.

CHANG: That's Eliza Shapiro. She covers New York City schools for The New York Times. Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.