Below is an open letter to Chancellor Richard A. Carranza from the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative (SHSBADI). SHSBADI was formed in 2010 to address the declining enrollment of Black and Latinx students at Stuyvesant and the city’s other specialized high schools.
The letter below outlines SHSBADI’s recommendations for ways to increase the number of Black and Latinx students at Specialized High Schools along with their thoughts on the pending State Legislation (S7983, A10427 and S8503) to address this issue.
Dear Chancellor Carranza:
The members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative welcome you to New York City!
Our group, which is an informal association of Black alumni of Stuyvesant High School and other supportive alumni, was formed in 2010 to address the now nearly four decade decline in the number of Black and Latinx students enrolled at Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. While these high schools are regarded as among the best public high schools in the nation, their student bodies unfortunately fail to reflect the diversity of our great city.
What you may not know is that at one point, these schools looked very different. In the late 70s, Black enrollment was 12% at Stuyvesant and over 40% at Brooklyn Tech, and while we do not have precise data on Latinx enrollment over time, we know that the Latinx population at these schools does not correspond to their representation among New York City students.
We attribute the change in demographics at these schools to a number of factors, but we see the prevalence of commercial test prep, the elimination of accelerated programs for gifted learners in many neighborhood schools, and the narrowing and discontinuation of the Discovery Program — a special program intended to provide an alternate route to admission for disadvantaged students — as the main causes. Due to the combination of these factors, these high schools are not a viable option for the vast majority of New York City school children, especially those who are Black or Latinx. It has been our objective to advocate for policy changes that will reopen the path to these schools for Black and Latinx students.
We are committed to our work on this issue because we understand how these high schools impact life chances. Each of our members can share a story about how they personally have benefited from attending Stuyvesant. Beyond those personal experiences, we also understand how important it is to a child’s development to be educated in a diverse environment, and we are concerned about the conclusions that generations of students educated at a Stuyvesant where Black and Latinx students are absent will draw about the world.
As you will see from the “About Us,” which follows this letter, we have been engaged on a variety of fronts to address this issue since our inception. After devoting energy and resources to outreach, community education and test prep, we see ourselves as advocates for policy change. In 2014, we sent an open letter to Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña outlining four recommendations to reverse this situation. Although we did not have the opportunity to meet with the Mayor or the prior Chancellor to discuss our recommendations, we have seen the DOE adopt some our recommendations. Consequently, we were quite pleased to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test (“SHSAT”) changed to eliminate questions that would only be familiar to students through test prep, increases in the number of gifted programs in disadvantaged communities, more outreach to communities who may not understand the value of attending a specialized high school, and most recently, plans to revive the Discovery Program at Stuyvesant and several other schools.
As you know, the Discovery Program is an alternate route to specialized high school admission for disadvantaged students, authorized by state law. Although this program has fallen into disuse in the past two decades, this program could create a path to admission for Black and Latinx students who are shut out from these schools. The key is expanding the definition of “disadvantaged” used to determine eligibility for participation in this program to include “educationally disadvantaged” students, broadly defined as students who are at a disadvantage in their efforts to gain admission to a specialized high school by virtue of the community in which they live. This definition largely mirrors the focus on school districts that are underrepresented at specialized high schools which are currently targeted by the DOE’s DREAM Intensive program. This acknowledges that educational opportunity is not the same in every community, an axiom proven by the fact that certain public middle schools send hundreds of their graduates to specialized high schools each year, while others send none. The fact that a child resides in a school district with public schools that are unable to prepare their students for success on the SHSAT should not foreclose bright, capable students from the opportunity attending a specialized high school creates.
Once access is provided, we also want to make sure that academically talented students from educationally disadvantaged communities are prepared for the rigors and challenges they will face as students at specialized high schools. Our “DREAM to Discovery” proposal aims to address this by urging the DOE to rededicate the resources devoted to test prep and enrichment to ensuring that students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who are admitted via Discovery have the support they need to be successful once admitted to one of these academically rigorous students.
“DREAM to Discovery” has two components: early identification and placement and middle school identification and support.
Early Identification and Placement:
We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the DOE take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it. When the Broward County (FL) school district implemented universal gifted and talented screening, the identification of gifted children increased by 80% for Black children and 130% for Hispanic children. We would urge the DOE to take a similar approach, especially in school districts which are educationally disadvantaged. Every child in an educationally disadvantaged school district should be screened, and if a child exhibits above average academic talent, their parents or guardians should be counseled on appropriate educational options. If suitable options are not available in the child’s school district, the DOE should facilitate an educational placement in another school district. The goal here is to identify children with academic talent as early as possible in their academic careers and then put them on an educational path that will help them gain admission to a specialized high school.
Experts in this area suggest that comparisons need to be made among children who are similarly situated, or who have similar learning opportunities. This is common sense: how can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages? Can we compare children who are native English speakers to those who are ELL (English Language Learners)? Is it fair to compare children from affluent families who have received months of expensive professional test prep to low-income students who have received no preparation at all? Determinations about aptitude and talent should be made within subgroups. The top students from every neighborhood should have access to accelerated programming. Using local rather than national norms is a way to accomplish this, and frankly, it was what we saw when gifted programs were based in neighborhood schools, and kids from a range of city neighborhoods had the opportunity to receive the accelerated education that would prepare them for a chance at securing a seat at one of the specialized high schools.
The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools. Gifted programs should be expanded to accommodate all eligible students, offer entry throughout elementary school whenever students demonstrate aptitude, and citywide and district gifted programs (K-8 and middle school) should be located in educationally disadvantaged communities.
Currently, a handful of screened feeder middle school programs send students to the specialized high schools. The absence of these programs in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Jamaica, Queens put students from those communities at a disadvantage. Accelerated middle school programs expose students to concepts and content needed to perform well on the SHSAT and to be competitive once admitted to a specialized high school.
Middle School Identification and Support:
The second component of DREAM to Discovery is middle school identification and support. This part of our proposal suggests combining the provisions of the DOE’s DREAM program and the Discovery Program in order to target available resources to their best advantage.
The objective here is to identify high potential students from educationally disadvantaged communities in the 6th grade, using a variety of measures, and then provide them with academic enrichment and social supports to prepare them for admission and success at specialized high schools once they are enrolled. After over a full year of academic enrichment, provided after school, on Saturdays, and over the summer, these students will take the SHSAT in the 8th grade. If they do not achieve the cutoff score for the school of their choice, their enrollment will be conditioned on their successful completion of the the summer Discovery Program.
Along with helping to ensure that New York City’s specialized high schools realize the goal of educating the best students from every city neighborhood, this program would allow the admission of a group of students who have had the opportunity to form friendships and become acquainted with one another before entering high school. This will help address concerns about isolation and the lack of social support that contribute to attrition and affect the overall success and well-being of students at these schools from the communities we are targeting.
While some have expressed concern that admitting some students via a special program would have the effect of stigmatizing those students, those concerns are addressed by the fact that an invitation to participate in this program would be based on a student’s record of achievement and demonstrated potential rather than their ability to satisfy an arbitrary standard. Consequently, selection for DREAM to Discovery would be a badge of honor, rather than evidence of a student’s perceived deficiencies.
The key to DREAM to Discovery is the expansion of eligibility for the Discovery Program to include students who are educationally disadvantaged, much in the same way the DOE targets disadvantaged districts for its DREAM Intensive Program.
We applaud the DOE for taking the initiative to create the DREAM Intensive program, but based on our conversations with DOE personnel we would make a few recommendations to improve it, using on our observations and experiences. First, after studying the list of districts targeted for this program, we wonder about the omission of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically Black community in central Brooklyn, as well as Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in the same school district, all gentrifying neighborhoods with underperforming schools. Perhaps it would be better to target specific middle schools, to account for differences within specific districts.
In addition, many families who live in educationally disadvantaged districts nevertheless put a high premium on education, and make sacrifices to send their children to non-public schools or even opt to homeschool. These students should not be excluded from any program intended to increase opportunity for students in educationally disadvantaged districts and in effect be penalized for the sacrifices their parents made.
We hope that your appointment as Chancellor and your notable record of providing opportunity to children who are typically placed at a disadvantage by traditional measures will help bring about necessary changes in New York City.
Our thoughts on Pending State Legislation: S7983, A10427 and S8503
Recently, members of the New York State legislature have introduced several measures intended to address the low enrollment of Black and Latinx students at the specialized high schools. Senate bill S7983 was introduced by State Senator Bailey to mandate the use of the Discovery Program at each specialized high school. While this is a step in the right direction, the key to the success of Discovery is expanding the definition of disadvantaged to include “educationally disadvantaged” students as we have set forth in our DREAM to Discovery proposal. In addition, we wonder about the utility of a the creation of a “Preliminary SHSAT” for 6th graders when we can already predict who will do well on the SHSAT, based on the schools they attend, and their exposure to supplemental education programs to prepare them. Rather than institutionalizing a test for 6th graders based on the SHSAT, it would be better to target available resources to the preparation and enrichment of students who have demonstrated academic potential via measures like state test scores and grades, despite coming from educationally disadvantaged communities. We believe a targeted approach to identifying and preparing academically talented students from communities currently underrepresented at these schools is the best path to achieving equity in enrollment at these schools.
Additionally, we are not certain that proposals like A10427 and S8503, which would introduce subjective factors like portfolios and interviews into the admissions process for Stuyvesant and the other SHSAT-only schools, would benefit students from educationally disadvantaged communities. It is easy to see how more affluent families with better educated parents would have an advantage when it comes time to create portfolios and prepare for interviews, and how industries providing these services would develop alongside the test prep industry, placing families with limited resources at a disadvantage. To avoid this consequence, we would urge legislators concerned about creating a path to specialized high schools for the communities currently shut out of these schools to advocate for strategies to guarantee access for top students in educationally disadvantaged communities as we urge through DREAM to Discovery.
Although educational pursuits and career opportunities have taken many of us outside of New York City, our ties to our hometown and our high school remain strong. We welcome you to the greatest city in the world and look forward to having the opportunity to meet you and work with you to help make the city’s best high schools accessible to students in every one of the city’s diverse communities.
The Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative
Vanessa M. Bing, Ph.D. ’80
Oni Blackstock, MD ‘94
Uche Blackstock, MD ‘94
Carole Brown ‘81
Michael R. Clarke, Esq. ‘79
Sonia Cole, MD ‘80
Pamela Davis-Clarke, Esq. ‘80
Jamil Ellis ‘95
Ola J. Friday, Ed.L.D. ‘99
Linda Gadsby, Esq. ‘84
Theresa Graham ‘77
Ann Mejias, MS.Ed. ‘79
Thomas Mela, Esq. ‘61
Tanya Messado, Esq. ‘93
Lisa Mullins ‘77
Leonard Noisette ’75
Rev. Yejide Peters ’94
Johnathan I. Pomboza ‘06
Heidi Reich, PhD ‘85
Kimberly Denise Williams ‘03
The Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative was formed in 2010 to address the declining enrollment of Black and Latinx students at Stuyvesant and the city’s other specialized high schools. Our goal is to reverse this trend, and increase the number of Black and Latinx students who attend these schools. Since our inception, we have assisted the school and the Department of Education with outreach; hosted a series of successful “Why Stuy?” Open House events at the school for prospective applicants and their parents, featuring panel discussions by alumni from diverse backgrounds, school tours and test taking tips; organized informational forums for alumni and the public on issues related to the specialized high school admissions process; sponsored a free, test prep boot camp; and raised funds which allowed us to underwrite professional SHSAT prep for talented students provided by the Kaplan Company.
In 2014 and 2015, two-thirds of the students we sponsored were admitted to specialized high schools, which far exceeded both the citywide admission rate, and the admission rate for the underrepresented groups which we target.
Although the founding members of this group are Black alumni of Stuyvesant High School, we welcome partnerships with groups and individuals who support our goals and who are willing to work cooperatively. We have elected to remain the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, however, in recognition of the unique voice and perspective we have as Black alumni of the school.
The Honorable Bill de Blasio, Mayor of the City of New York
The Honorable Letitia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York
The Honorable Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President
The Honorable Ruben Diaz, Bronx Borough President
Sponsors of S7983:
Jamaal T. Bailey
Toby Ann Stavisky
Sponsors of A10427:
Members of the New York State Assembly
Carmen E. Arroyo
Carmen De La Rosa
Inez E. Dickens
Walter T. Mosley
N. Nick Perry
J. Gary Pretlow
Michaelle C. Solages
Sponsor of S8503:
NY State Senate
Kevin S. Parker
Department of Education Officials:
Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson
LaShawn Robinson, Executive Superintendent, Office of Equity and Access
Specialized High School Representatives:
Larry Cary, Brooklyn Technical High School Alumni Foundation
Eric Contreras, Principal, Stuyvesant High School
Soo Kim, President, Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association
Community Education Councils 4-14, 16-19, 23, 29, 32 and the High School Citywide Education Council