SHSAT fight leads to talk of broader changes in education

BOROUGHWIDE — The politically charged battle over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test has unexpectedly opened up a wider discussion about whether the public school system needs wholesale changes.

The mayor told reporters at a recent roundtable with journalists that he might have to rethink his controversial plan to scrap the entrance exam for elite high schools, although he vowed to continue working toward his goal of increasing racial diversity in the schools.

Adele Doyle, president of the Community Education Council of School District 20, who opposed the mayor’s plan, said she would like to see major changes in the education system.

“We need a bottom-up revolution in education that reflects 21st century learning,” Doyle told the Home Reporter.

“People say the mayor’s change is a sign of weakness. I’d call it wisdom. I’m not sure what his motivation was, but I’d like to think he recognized that removing the SHSAT as presented was an incredibly flawed plan. Our education system is flawed, our assessment structure is outdated and the lecture format of classroom learning which dominates our schools represents industrial America from 70 years ago,” said Doyle, who is a teacher.

If the city adopted a rigorous, mastery-based, collaborative learning system, “we will see more diversity in our specialized high schools,” Doyle predicted.

Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of the student population in the New York City public school system, according to Department of Education figures, yet Huff Post reported earlier this year that only 4 percent of the incoming class at elite high schools would be comprised of black students.

Several of the city’s specialized high schools use the SHSAT as the sole criteria for admission.

But as quickly as de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a proposal to scrap the SHSAT, efforts were mounted by Southwest Brooklyn lawmakers and parent groups to fight the plan.

Assemblymember Bill Colton, a Democrat representing Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, formed the South Brooklyn Coalition for Quality Education.

In the wake of the news of the mayor’s apparent change of heart on the SHSAT, Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr. said he would like to see racial disparity in schools addressed in a comprehensive manner.

“I am glad that the mayor and his office were responsive to the concerns of New York City parents and dropped his plans to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test. It is my hope that the administration engages in honest and open-minded dialogue that identifies truly effective solutions for maximizing opportunity for students of all backgrounds to gain admission to our city’s specialized high schools,” Cornegy said in a statement.

“The city must focus on improving and expanding programming that prepares students of all backgrounds for greater success, both later in their academic careers, and in their lives more broadly. This means reforming and expanding the gifted and talented program and creating more enrichment opportunities in middle schools to better equip students for the SHSAT,” said Cornegy, a Democrat representing Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The fight over the SHSAT isn’t over, however.

Assemblymember Charles Barron, a Democrat representing East New York and Brownsville, sponsored a bill to eliminate the test during the last legislative session and said he is confident that time is running out for the exam.

“I firmly believe that it’s important for us to build on the momentum we had in the last session,” Barron told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Colton urged pro-SHSAT parents not to let their guard down.

“Mayor de Blasio is saying that he will consider keeping SHSAT as one of the many other procedures in selecting students. I would like to also warn parents that the fight to keep SHSAT is not over. Parents also must continue fight doubly hard to keep SHSAT as the sole criteria and to demand expanding gifted and talented programs to all the neighborhoods where the NYC DOE has been closing down such programs,’ Colton told the Home Reporter in an email.

Additional reporting by Meaghan McGoldrick

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