Why Not Have a Real NYC Specialized High School Integration Plan? 

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Part 2: The real history behind the NYC Specialized High School (SHS) ‘Integration Problem’ and how it could be fixed, if fixing it is really the objective…

“How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” — Ronald Edmonds

Those with knowledge of NYCDOE history know that the newly discovered Specialized High School (SHS) “integration problem” conversation really has its roots in an earlier (1990’s) period when a “clandestine-concern” emerged about the declining white student population (and the rapidly rising Asian student numbers) at the SHS. And since a: “We shall overcome Asian students outperforming white students on the SHSAT exam” movement would come across as unseemly, we find ourselves in the present state of affairs, where Black and Latino kids are serving as political cannon fodder in a war that will not truly serve their best educational interest.

One of my greatest disappointments with the present SHS integration conversation is that Asian parents and other parents of color are being “played” and drafted into opposing enemy camps; when in fact, the system has the resources and sufficient numbers of diverse high schools to properly serve all of NYC’s children if it chose to do so. The divide and conquer: “My child can only win if your child loses” is one of the shameful by-products of a public educational system that is based on the principle that parental money and political entitlement will defeat the dreams of those parents who lack the money and/or the political organization to effectively fight for their children.  The present cynical use of Black and Latino kids has nothing to do with factors of equity and equality, rather it has more to do with scoring political points while avoiding making the hard, political choices that would immediately and in the future raise the numbers of Black and Latino students attending SHS. After all, if you only do the politician’s obligatory “Black church tour” and ask the congregants: “Are you for SHS integration or segregation?”  Well, given the past and present history of this nation’s “racial behavior” toward Black people, of course they will raise their hands in favor of SHS integration. What those Black church attendees don’t realize is that the real and more insidious segregated situation is the separate and unequal learning experiences their children are forced to endure every day in schools down the street from their churches.

The real integration mountain that (appointed, anointed or elected) leaders in NYS/NYC seem reluctant to climb, because it is so politically unattractive, is the integration and equalization of the quality of learning in all NYC K-8 schools. Politically unattractive because to make it work, student learning would need to take precedence over money-making business interests (education companies and consultants who promise much, but deliver little) and adult employment satisfaction; e.g., unhelpful work rules, regulations and labor agreements that primarily penalizes children of color.

And while we are waiting for that righteous battle to begin, there are some “right now” and very “doable” actions that could expand the numbers of Black and Latino students who could not only successfully gain admission to SHS, but who could also be well-prepared to succeed at any NYC high school.

Let’s start by: (1) Going strong early! We have a wonderful Pre-K G&T model school (Little Sun People) in Brooklyn that succeeds in not only empowering students academically but also empowers their self-esteem, pride and confidence. We will never be successful long-term by limiting ourselves to doing educational integration “patchwork” fixes, we must build a sustainable pipeline of academic success starting with Pre-K to: (2) Expanding K-8 G&T programs citywide in many more schools and in every school district in the city (to their credit, several Black & Latino elected officials have repeatedly asked for this!). And despite what NYC citizens of color are led to believe, there is no “regulatory cap” on the number of K-8 G&T programs that can be established. We proved that in CSD 29 Queens (2000-2003), where without asking for NYCDOE permission, we expanded our G&T programs, including some of our “lowest-performing” and poorest (Title 1) elementary schools.

We know from much experience that the best path for preparing any student to do well on the SHSAT (or Regents exams, AP, SAT, ACT, etc.) is to start informal and formal Standards-Based Instruction & Learning (SBIL) as early as possible, provide consistent and rigorous SBIL along with qualified and quality instruction at every grade/class level, and then provide students with a “strategically smart” test-prep program.  Anyone who tells you otherwise, check to see what their own educational experience has been and/or the educational plans they had/have for their own children! (3) While the SHSAT exam is still in place, have a “real” school-based “test-preparation” after-school/weekends/summer program. “Real Test-Prep” meaning similar to the SHSAT-Prep curriculum that was developed in a joint effort between Princeton Review and Community School District 29 Queens 2000-2003. The key to our SHSAT-Prep program success was combining the work of our expanded G&T programs with our focused SHSAT-Prep classes; having a district-wide “Readers-to-Leaders” program to bolster English Language Arts skills; a concentrated effort to make all students “pre-algebra”-ready by the end of 8th grade; placing dedicated STEM labs and science teachers at the elementary level, including an early childhood school, and in every middle school; we also expanded music, art, dance and drama (part of our “growing” smartness and thinking skills objectives, and prepping students for gaining access to the “arts” SHS) programs in all schools.

But all of these academic strengthening efforts must be simultaneously joined to a “ramping-up” of the quality of the child’s daily instructional experience. We should be totally honest with parents, no test-prep program, no matter how well “titled,” can be fully effective if it is not connected to a student’s daily classroom curriculum and instruction; this teaching and learning experience must be driven by the standards that will be assessed on that standardized exam. Students can’t possibly do well on the SHSAT or any standardized exam if the first time they encounter the test’s rigor, conceptual standards and language is when they sit down to take that exam.

Equalizing the exposure to a quality K-8 education (G&T or not) throughout the city would eliminate the need for any type of racial quotas for SHS admissions. The SHS admission administrators would then only need to devise an algorithm that would admit some equal percentage/number of the highest-ranking students from every public middle school in the city since these students would have all been equally prepared to survive and thrive in the SHS competitive environment.

Instituting a “racial admissions quota” will allow the city to temporarily cover up and color over the real problem of students of color being overexposed to a separate and unequal K-8 educational product. Hopefully, Black and Latino parents will get wise to this school integration “sleight of hand” distraction game and justifiably demand, from their leaders, a quality K-12 education for their children wherever they go to school. This will not be a fantasy request, for there was a not-too-far-back time when a poor/working-class NYC child of any color could receive a world-class education at any one of NYC’s neighborhood (“zoned”) high schools.  I think that Black and Latino parents are already smart and politically savvy enough to conclude that it is not the symbolic piecemeal victory of racial integration that they want (as nice as that is); rather, what they really want is the concrete victory of the integration of a K-12 high educational quality and opportunity for their children… Simply stated: The Equality of Quality.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal, and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]