Segregated Schools, No Test Required

By Basir Mchawi

Back in March, parents, students and educational advocates shuddered as the dismal results of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) were made public. The test scores and admissions prospects for Black and Latino students get worse every year and the results are accompanied by handwringing and disbelief. I graduated from Bronx High School of Science more than fifty years ago when science was the top elite high school in New York City. There were far more Black and Latino students in the specialized high schools back then. That fact challenges the notion of the “educational progress” that Department of Education bureaucrats regularly tout. Our schools are failing and get progressively worse for our children year after year. I have written extensively about the SHSAT and the specialized high schools, pointing out contradictions and offering solutions. 

On May 1st, Chancellor Richard Carranza testified before the New York City Council about segregation in the New York City public schools and his and Mayor de Blasio’s desire to replace the SHSAT with more equitable measures of student performance. On Friday, May 10th, New York State Senators held a speakout on “Equity, Diversity and Admissions” in downtown Brooklyn as the State Legislature considers any changes to the SHSAT. The majority of students and parents who spoke at the meeting vigorously supported the current high school admissions process and sought to keep the SHSAT in place.

Let me be clear. Much of the debate around the SHSAT is a distraction that takes us away from the core problem. The New York State Legislature requires the SHSAT for only three high schools: Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. There are five other high schools that use the test, but there is no legislative requirement for them to do so. The mayor and chancellor could abolish the SHSAT as the sole admissions requirement for Staten Island Technical, High School for American Studies at Lehman College, Brooklyn Latin and Queens High School at York College tomorrow, but they do not and will not. There is an increasing pattern of segregation and racial isolation in New York City’s public schools that makes New York one of the most segregated school systems in the country. When speaking about the issue of school segregation, I would often point out that New York City’s public schools are more segregated than when I went to school and even more segregated today than when my mother went to school! Why is this so and how did this happen?

Hidden in all of the debate and rhetoric is the existence of an “apartheid” school system that is directly under the control of Mayor de Blasio. In early March, a racist incident at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan uncovered this “separate and unequal” system. The only Black girl in the ninth grade at Roosevelt was given a racist note tied to a tampon. Roosevelt is a small high-performing school that is a “screened” high school. There is no test required and many factors are supposedly used to gain admission. According to the latest student demographic report for Roosevelt, it is 64% White, 17% Asian, 12% Hispanic and 3% Black. How is this possible in a city where Blacks and “Hispanics” are almost 70% of the school population? We can imagine, since it is reported that there is one Black girl in Roosevelt’s ninth grade, that the numbers are getting worse. Roosevelt is not alone. In Queens, Townshend Harris, another high-performing “screened” high school, is 5% Black. There are other high-performing high schools and middle schools that have similar numbers. 

Several parents contacted me when, after filling out high school applications and having, along with their children, selected up to twelve high schools ranked one through twelve, they did not receive admission to any of their top choices. In each case, the child in question was academically sound with talents such as dancing, singing or playing musical instruments. It is clear that the “screening” process is social engineering designed specifically to keep qualified Black children out of high-performing schools. There is history to all of this and in another article, I will attempt to look at how we arrived at this very problematic destination.

Basir Mchawi is an activist, educator and communicator. He can be heard on his award-winning WBAI radio program, “Education at the Crossroads,” on Thursdays at 8 pm. As a long-standing member of The EAST family, he will be attending the 50th Anniversary celebration of The EAST this weekend.

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