Parents fight de Blasio effort to change elite school admissions

Parents who are opposed to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plans to overhaul the admissions standards in the city’s elite high schools are battling the mayor on two fronts.

A group of parents held a press conference outside Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School in Dyker Heights on Jan. 25 to denounce de Blasio’s plans. The parents were joined by Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents parts of Bay Ridge and Staten Island. Malliotakis is a member of the Assembly Education Committee.

The mayor has publicly stated that he is looking to increase diversity in the specialized high schools so that more African-American and Latino students can gain admission. But Asian-American parents charged that the changes he is pushing would unfairly hurt their kids, who currently make up 62 percent of the students in the top schools.

African-Americans and Latinos make up 68 percent of the overall student population of the city’s schools, but just nine percent of the population in elite high schools, according to the Department of Education.

“Everyone wants diversity. But the city’s answer to the problem is bizarre,” said Vito LaBella, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Christa McAuliffe I.S.

On one front in the battle against de Blasio, parents are urging the state legislature to reject a proposal by de Blasio to phase out the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the sole standard used to gain admission into the city’s elite high schools like Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School. Eliminating the exam would require state legislation.

Under de Blasio’s plan, the SHSAT would be phased out over a period of three years in favor of a system under which the top students in each of the city’s middle schools would be allowed to enroll in specialized high schools.

Schools like Christa McAuliffe I.S. are likely to become battlegrounds in the fight since students in the city’s intermediate and middle schools are the ones taking the SHSAT.

Phillip Wong, the father of three daughters, the youngest of whom recently took the SHSAT, defended the current system. “This test does not look at your race or ethnicity,” he said.

On a second front, parents have filed a federal lawsuit to stop de Blasio from moving ahead with his plan to change Discovery, a city program that offers academic services to middle school youngsters from low-income families who just barely miss the cutoff point for the SHSAT and wish to get another crack at gaining admission to an elite high school.

The mayor would not need the state legislature’s permission to change Discovery.

Under a two-year effort that would begin in September, the Discovery program will be expanded to ensure that 20 percent of the seats at each specialized high school would be held for Discovery students.

The eligibility criteria will also be adjusted to target students attending higher poverty schools.

As a result, Black and Hispanic student enrollment in specialized high schools would nearly double, going from nine to 16 percent, according to the de Blasio administration.

LaBella charged that the proposed Discovery changes would be unfair because they would leave out students from low-income homes who happen to attend middle schools in high-income or middle class neighborhoods. “The program is going to be geared toward poverty schools, not individual students,” he said.

Wong, who is a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, accused the mayor of “throwing away merit in favor of diversity.”

Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, said both of the mayor’s proposals are unfair. “We really strongly believe in the future of this city. What we have to do is protect our schools and protect our children. Children should not be punished on the basis of race,” she said.

Malliotakis said that instead of scrapping the SHSAT or altering Discovery, the city should “give more kids access to gifted programs at elementary and middle school level so that they can do well on this exam.”

The city should also look at opening more specialized schools, she said.

Will Mantell, press secretary at the Dept. of Education, defended the proposed changes.

“No single test should determine a student’s future, and our reforms will expand opportunity and raise the bar at our specialized high schools. Our schools are academically stronger when they reflect the diversity of our city,” Mantell told this newspaper in an email.

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