Finding the Right School

A SHSAT School For All Who Want One!

New York City public high school placement letters usually come out mid-March. But expect a delay in 2019. At issue is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to set aside 20 percent of seats in Specialized High Schools for low-income students attending low-income middle schools who just missed the qualifying cut-off score for admission. Asian-American groups charge that it’s a deliberate attempt to lower their otherwise majority numbers at the eight schools named.

This Discovery program is intended to be a stop-gap for the city’s ultimate goal of getting rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and replacing it with the top 7 percent of students as determined by grades and test scores from every public middle school receiving automatic admission to an SHSAT school.

I’ve written about how I don’t think there’s anything special about SHSAT schools themselves: It’s the kids who make the schools; if you change the kids, you change the schools.

NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza disagrees. (And he should know. When he was Chancellor in San Francisco, he sent his daughter to a screened school, despite believing screened schools are immoral and expressing confusion as to why any parent would want their child attending one. What a sacrifice this was for him, acting against his own beliefs like that!)

My middle child has been lobbying to quit school and learn on his own since third grade. He begged me to let him skip high school and go straight to college. (To see how NYC makes this practically impossible, click here.)

He started an SHSAT school this fall. Against his will.

Now here comes the plot twist: He loves it! (Naturally, I’m Jewish enough to realize that it’s only the second semester of freshman year and the fat lady isn’t even close to singing yet.)

Like many NYC four-year-olds, my son took an IQ test for Kindergarten admission. He ended up in a school where children need to score in the top percentiles. But, here’s the thing: Just because a child is verbally precocious, was read and talked to, and has a knack for puzzles as a preschooler, does not guarantee that he or she actually will have a hunger for learning.

At his SHSAT school, my son is surrounded by kids who have a hunger for learning as intense — some might even say as ridiculous — as his.

That’s the value-add of SHSAT schools. And the Mayor and Chancellor are right. It’s extremely unfair that every NYC teen who wants that sort of environment can’t have it, primarily due to the horrible K-8 education they’re receiving, which knocks them out of the running for an SHSAT school long before they ever sit for the exam.

So how about this: Instead of lowering standards and insisting that learning must be a zero sum game, then forcing motivated, hard-working kids deprived of an adequate education by their own system into high schools where, as Mary Hudson writes in “Public Education’s Dirty Secret,” those who want to learn are bullied and shamed, the Department of Ed create more SHSAT schools?

Right now, about 30,000 students sit for the test. In all 8 schools, there are around 4,000 seats, so the city offers places to roughly 5,000 kids, with the understanding that not all will accept.

But what if NYC commits to making a seat available to absolutely every single test-taker? NYC has over 400 high schools. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science field incoming classes of about 900. Brooklyn Tech admits close to 2,000! To accomodate 30,000 applicants, you’d need maybe 20 more SHSAT schools? 30? Even 40 out of 400 isn’t that many. And, this time, we’d make sure to scatter them equally around the five boroughs, so that students from Queens wouldn’t be forced to make three-hour round trips, the way some do now.

We wouldn’t need to build new buildings or hire new teachers. We could just convert existing schools, either failing ones, to give them a second shot at success (hey, it’s what they’re trying to do for elementary schools), or Screened schools which, despite the mayor’s oft-repeated love of diversity are currently whiter and richer than the SHSAT schools. He could kill two birds with one stone!

Kids would still need to rank the schools in the order they prefer (not all of them; odds are they’d stick to their geographic area, but if you want to rank all 40, go for it!), and their SHSAT score would still determine priority but, with so many choices, there’s bound to be a broader range of academic abilities (another stated goal of diversity), not to mention race and gender, in each.

Those who support the current proposed mayoral changes argue it’s undemocratic for a public school to offer admission to some students and not others. (What exactly they think neighborhood zoned schools do, I’m not sure.) But the new plan doesn’t change that. It just shuffles around the anointed groups.

If the Mayor and Chancellor genuinely believe there is something special about Specialized High Schools (and they really ought to make up their collective minds about that, if Screened schools have a ‘better’ admissions method, then why aren’t they ‘better’ and then why isn’t the diversity initiative aimed at them?), they shouldn’t want to merely redistribute the hoarded resources. They should want to make SHSAT schools available for all who want them.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “A SHSAT School For All Who Want One!

  1. It seems that academic/educational elite has the same educational objectives as religious fundamentalists. We want our own schools for our own children.

    1. Not this year. But, considering that District 15 just unscreened all their middle schools – including the performing arts one – it seems like LaGuardia and the rest (PPAS, Frank Sinatra, Talent Unlimited, Ballet Tech) might be next on the chopping block!

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