Chancellor defends plan to scrap elite school test at Bensonhurst town hall

Audience boos Carranza at P.S. 204 town hall

Facing a skeptical — and, at times, a booing — audience, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza staunchly defended Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial proposal to eliminate the do-or-die admissions test to New York City’s elite high schools at a town hall in Bensonhurst Wednesday night.

“Let me be clear, because I’m not going to back off on this,” said Carranza, who spoke to an crowd of parents at a town hall at P.S. 204.

The city needs to “look at who is able to get into these schools and who is not” and “have a conversation,” the chancellor said.

But members of the District 20 Community Education Council, who hosted the town hall, said parents are concerned that the part of the plan involving placing a cap on the number of students from middle schools gaining admission to specialized high schools would unfairly deny their kids the chance at a top-notch education.

Under de Blasio’s plan, there would be a three percent cap that would rise to seven percent within a few years.

“We ask that our students be given an equal opportunity,” CEC 20 President Adele Doyle told Carranza. District 20 covers schools in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst, Borough Park and Sunset Park.

CEC 20 member Armetis Lekakis calculated that if the proposed admissions system had been in place this year, only 18 students from District 20 would have been able to enroll at elite high schools. Normally, more than 200 local students take the SHSAT and qualify. It’s not clear how many of them wind up enrolling in elite high schools, however.

The town hall illustrated how the controversy over de Blasio’s plan to change the way students gain admission into the city’s top public high schools isn’t showing any signs of letting up.

In an effort to increase racial diversity in schools like Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School, which use an entrance exam known as the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole criteria for admission, de Blasio recently unveiled a plan that includes eliminating the test and replacing it with a system in which a percentage of the top students from middle schools would gain admission to an elite high school.

The proposed new system would give African-Americans, Latinos and other minority students a better chance, supporters of the plan have said.

Currently, nine percent of the students in elite high schools are black and Latino. But black and Latino students make up 68 percent of the overall population in New York City schools and are under-represented in the top high schools, according to the mayor’s office.

The proposal to scrap the SHSAT would require approval from the state Legislature.

At one point, Carranza got into a testy exchange with Lekakis after Lekakis asked the chancellor if he worried that by changing the admissions process, elite high schools would start to see their lofty reputations decline.

“I don’t think the city or the mayor knows what this plan, if implemented, is going to do to the reputation of those schools,” Lekakis told Carranza.

Carranza called that notion “highly offensive.”

The idea that “if you provide opportunity to some kids you are taking opportunity away from others really falls flat,” Carranza said.

CEC 20 Treasurer Inga Smolyar noted that District 20, which has 54,000 students, has schools that are vastly overcrowded. If local students don’t get a shot at attending elite high schools, “our high schools will become even more overcrowded,” she said.

At several points during the town hall, Carranza sought to dispute the idea that specialized high schools are the only places where students could receive a great education. “The notion that you can only receive a quality education at a specialized high school is false,” he said.

The remark drew boos from the audience.

Carranza maintained that it’s unfair to base admission solely on a test. He said the city is looking at establishing additional criteria, including teacher recommendations.

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