The Tale of Two School Districts

By: Assemblywoman Alicia L. Hyndman

Serving in the New York State Assembly has been one of the most thrilling, exhausting, fun, challenging, and fulfilling times of my life. When traveling through the state, most people don't know whether to call you Senator, Congresswoman or Council Member. They have an idea of what you do but sometimes they aren't so sure. I have the honor to be one of the 150 members in the Assembly from across the state. Along with my colleagues in the Senate and the Governor we make laws that hopefully have a positive impact for all New Yorkers. But, before being a Member of the Assembly, I am a mom. A single mother at that – raising kids in NYC Public schools. While I am a former employee of the New York State Department of Education and the former President of Community District Education Council 29, the experience that helps me legislate most effectively on behalf of my constituents and the great people of New York -- is my experience as a mother.

My oldest just finished her second year at Morgan State, but my youngest, Nyla is 8 years old and is currently in the Gifted and Talented program at PS 176Q. As a parent of an 8-year-old in public school, like many other parents, I am preparing for Nyla to start High School in 2024. I know that if Nyla does well enough on the Specialized High School exam she can get into one of the nine elite New York City Specialized High Schools – and her life of academic success continues to be academically challenging while preparing her for college. Unfortunately, if she isn't successful at the exam the schools will not look at any other factors besides her exam score and while Nyla can go on to another amazing public school in New York City- she would be stripped away of other opportunities because of one exam. The schools will not look at her extracurricular activities, the middle schools she went to, or even her grades in light of her economic status. Now, many of you are probably thinking you are an Assemblywoman you are making tons of money (not true) – while I am blessed and honored to serve I am also a single mother with a child in college and one on the way there. These are things all New Yorkers on some level think about. My constituents while one of the highest earning neighborhoods of color, and even one of the highest voting blocks in the city – still see the remnants of redlining and poverty that trickles down into the progress of our schools and limits kids from certain neighborhoods to have opportunities. But, even if Nyla does get into one of these elite schools she will be going to a school whose population is not reflective of New York City. In a City that prides itself on diversity and inclusion – we have been doing an injustice to students by segregating our schools. Diversity includes race, but on a macro level deals with gender, socioeconomic status, cultural backgrounds, and experience.

Today, over 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, New York schools still remain separate and arguably unequal. But, we have the opportunity to reverse the effects of that injustice by expanding opportunity for a more diverse group of New Yorkers to attend Specialized High Schools. I have received hundreds of phone calls and almost a thousand emails all from individuals not wanting to do away with the test. Some were cordial, some downright racist saying things like “they should study harder” or “they should pay for prep like I have.” These arguments are misplaced and divisive in a conversation about improving diversity and improving our schools. Parents have the right to advocate for their child-- but let's have a conversation and not demonize children, mostly at no fault of their own, who are struggling. These arguments also are moot when you are trying to create an equal system. A system that they have reaped the benefits from and will still have ample opportunity to benefit from under the Mayor’s plan.

I commend Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza for boldly bringing to the forefront the conversation of diversity in our schools. While many of the Mayor’s supporters have rightfully been upset with the slow progress in ending the “Tail of Two Cities” that has plagued our city - today they can applaud him for proposing a new plan to desegregate and innovate with diversifying our Specialized High Schools. “The civil rights generation is exiting the American stage – not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom, troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America’s fate.” With that quote, Ta-Nehisi Coates understands that it is time for a new generation to pick up the mantle of justice and reform systems that, even in one of the most diverse cities in the world, still segregates Black, Latino, Asian, and White students at startling rates. This isn't simply a matter of Black, White, Latino or Asian - I support all students getting a quality education. But for too long in our city education has become a privilege and not a right! It is a bigger problem of systemic injustice through decades of the closing of schools, discriminatory housing policy, and economic policies that disfavor the poor - students of all races in this city have been put at a disadvantage. We know that historically students of color, low-income students, have fared worse on a standardized test. It is not because their parents care less or that they are not able to learn - but a bigger conversation about why a zip code or a school district determines your success. We want all kids to succeed - but educational equity is needed. Both policy-wise and practically we cannot just exclude students from these schools because they missed a test by a few marks. We must also look at other factors like income, neighborhood, extracurricular activities, overall GPA – we are not lowering standards but we are not reducing them to a single exam. Similar to some of the most elite Universities and Graduate Schools in the country we are saying that we need a progressive comprehensive approach to admissions that does not use just a single exam. We are better than that and our students deserve diversity and a chance to compete.

Just like the city, I represent neighborhoods that are increasingly becoming more diverse. The 29th Assembly District encompasses the neighborhoods of Laurelton, Rosedale, St. Albans, Addisleigh Park, Hollis, Springfield Gardens and Jamaica. Even with the vast amount of cultural capital that this city has, according to a policy brief published by NYU Steinhardt “in 2013, for example, at the three largest specialized high schools, 57 percent of incoming 9th graders were male, 64 percent were Asian, and 22 percent were White, while just 4 percent were Black and 5 percent Latino. By comparison, incoming 9th graders citywide were 51 percent male, 17 percent Asian, 13 percent White, 28 percent Black, and 40 percent Latino.” This year only 10 percent of students admitted were Black and Latino even though they make up over 67 percent of the population of students. City-and-State reports that “At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of the eight schools, 10 students offered admission this fall were Black and 27 were Latino out of 801 students total offered admission.” At another school Brooklyn Tech, which is the largest specialized high school, in 2018 of the offers given out 935 were Asian, 567 were White, 137 were Latino and 87 were Black.

The Mayor has a two-step approach: 1) Phasing out the Specialized High School Exam and taking the top 7 percent of students in all of the public middle schools in the city (with a small percentage allowed for private schools) 2) offering 20 percent of seats in each specialized school to low-income students who missed the test cutoff by a few points after they attend the Discovery Program, a summer-school session.

The second prong of the plan is projected to increase diversity in school by up to 45 percent and will still only take students who have done well within middle-schools across the city. For opponents who argue that their kids will be disadvantaged, their kids usually will be covered because they most likely were within that percentage in their middle-schools. While I agree completely with the second prong of the plan, I do believe we need to keep the Specialized High School test to be a quantitative approach to grading students. A comprehensive plan will only make this exam one factor but have a qualitative approach to a broader application process. This is similar to the process of colleges across the country and Graduate schools. These exams favor those with parents who can afford test prep, students who went to stronger middle schools, and arguably those within a certain geographical zone. As the Mayor pointed out in his op-ed announcing his plan “[t]here’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the Specialized High Schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science comes from the Bronx.” These are things that the State and the City need to come together to fix - we have been putting Band-Aids on a bigger virus affecting our society that is part and parcel of the motif of the Tale of Two Cities. The NYU report concluded by saying:

The sobering reality is that disparities in the specialized schools mirror larger, system-wide achievement gaps that exist prior to middle school. Ensuring that Black, Latino, and low-income students have access to high-quality educational opportunities, from the earliest grades, is a central challenge facing the City’s public schools. Addressing this challenge will likely take years, more knowledge, and a much greater commitment of resources. Still, as this study underscores, there are options for moving NYC’s specialized schools toward more diversity, however incrementally, even as we acknowledge the need for larger, more systemic change.

Tons of challenges are still found in early childhood education, receiving the campaign for fiscal equity funding owed to our schools, other policy approaches that directly target, and some that have a tangential effect on education (ending poverty, policing reform, etc.). We have the opportunity to be a beacon of hope for students of all backgrounds and say to them that they too can access some of the greatest schools in our city. Further, we can be a shining example for the rest of country to show how educational success is not just about quantitative measurements but of the soft skills you gain from being in diverse environments and building cultural capital; being in extracurricular activities; modeling different pedagogical approaches to help different types of learners achieve academic success; and to build incubators for the next generation of leadership. My ultimate goals are to leave my community better than I found it and to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.