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May 26, 2019

Kids can rise to this challenge: The right response to low Specialized High Schools admissions rates for blacks and Latinos is to fix the system

April 17, 2019
Raise all boats. (Todd Maisel / New York Daily News)

When my kids fall short of a goal, we talk about what went wrong and what to do differently next time. We discuss the need to prepare better and further in advance.

When Mayor de Blasio sees thousands of black and Latino students coming up short on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, he doesn’t offer ways to improve their middle schools, increase their SHSAT scores, or expand opportunities. Instead, he offers a politically expedient shortcut: eliminate the test. His argument is that if black and Latino students can’t meet the standard — a standard that he never proposed eliminating until last year — we should end the standard altogether.

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I disagree. I believe all students have extraordinary capacities, and I believe when large numbers of boys and girls are not succeeding, it is a failure of the system, not the students. Eliminating the test does not improve the system. Eliminating the test acquiesces to mediocrity.

As a black man, as a father, as a lifelong civil rights activist and as a graduate of Brooklyn Tech, I’m ready to fight like hell for greater diversity at these schools. But I don’t want to see political opportunism undermine educational excellence.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. There’s a different path forward, a path that better reflects the scope of the challenge in America’s largest school system, which is also one of its most segregated ones. It’s a path that begins earlier and creates more opportunity for more students.

I’m proud to be part of a new coalition, the Education Equity Campaign, that believes we can preserve high standards, invest in our children and prepare the new generation of leaders who reflect the full diversity of our city.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at J.H.S. 292 in East New York, Brooklyn on June 3, 2018.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at J.H.S. 292 in East New York, Brooklyn on June 3, 2018. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

The first step is to create more opportunities for success. There are 15,000 seats at specialized high schools and approximately 400,000 high school students citywide. Having one advanced opportunity for every 26 students is insufficient to meet the genius that resides in our public school system. We need to double the number of seats — and schools — in our city’s specialized high school system.

The second step is to invest in free test prep. I know the mayor says he already tried that. But spending $6 million of your $32.3 billion schools budget on test prep — 0.02% — is not a sincere effort. We know SHSAT test prep works for students, regardless of zip code. All of our students are capable, but not all of them are properly prepared, and that is a failure of the system. We need test prep in every district, and we need it to be free and accessible for every student.

The third — but perhaps most important — step is improving our middle schools. We need to take the focus off of the test and put it on the real problem: the lack of adequate academic preparation in grades six through eight. Right now, 15 district middle schools got half or more of their test takers into a specialized high school, and 480 schools had between zero and four students admitted. Strengthening the quality of education at middle schools, especially around the critical STEM skills that are integral to so many well-paying jobs, will benefit all of our students, regardless of whether they are one of the lucky few to attend a specialized high school.

The fourth and final step is cultivating talent in every district, early on. We need gifted and talented programs in every school district in our city — starting at an early age — to give every student the opportunity to reach their full potential.

This is New York City, where we don’t surrender our dreams, where we don’t retreat from excellence, and where we don’t sacrifice good educational policy on the altar of political expediency. We cannot solve a decades-long, systemic problem by erasing a test. We must solve a decades-long, systemic problem by fixing the system.

Foy is president of the Arc of Justice Foundation. In the print version of this Op-Ed, he was also identified as Northeast director of National Action Network; he is no longer affiliated with that organization.

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