Why New York City’s Selective Public High Schools Are Neglecting to Reflect the City’s Actual Diversity

By Rita Gonzalez

Stacked bar charts comparing racial and ethnic makeup of offers for each of the specialized high schools from 2014-2019. Originally printed in the New York Times in 2019.
Originally featured in “Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out Of 895 Spots” by Eliza Shapiro (NYT, 2019)

New York City prides itself as being one of America’s most diverse cities, yet its most prominent selective public schools are far from racially or ethnically heterogeneous. Public schools, which should provide equal education to all students, are concerningly demographically unequal. A New York Times article, entitled, “Only 7 Black Students Got Into Stuyvesant, N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots,” outlines the extreme racial disparities in admission into New York City’s most selective and elite public high schools. Although New York City’s Mayor, Bill De Blasio, hopes to eliminate selective public high schools’ highly exclusive entrance exam, it is crucial to recognize the other problems with selective admissions, critically and intersectionality. A myriad of factors could affect a student’s chances of being admitted into a selective school, particularly New York City’s selective public schools. The New York Times article on the troublingly low number of Black Students Admitted into Stuyvesant, reads, “though [Black] and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of New York City’s public school system…just over 10 percent of students admitted into the city’s eight specialized high schools were black or Hispanic”. The number of Black and Hispanic students admitted is continuously dropping, making this an extremely urgent problem. New York City’s specialized public high schools do not reflect the true diverse racial and ethnic makeup of New York City, exacerbating the profound disparity in students’ academic preparation and ability to apply and be admitted to these nine, elite schools, due to the severe economic and racial segregation plaguing NYC public schools.

Having grown up in New York City, one would think I would be familiar with the local  educational system. However, because I attended private school my entire academic career, I was entirely removed from the complex systems of choice and exclusive selection involved in admissions in the NYC public school system. The admissions protocol for any school–public or private is often highly exclusive, classist and racialized–usually admitting fewer students of color and of lower socioeconomic class (if private or selective). Education should not be exclusive, as “public schools in the United States are the only social institutions that cannot by law turn a child away regardless of race, religion, immigration status, or any other trait or designation” (Noguera, 7). Despite this, there are nine highly selective public high schools in New York City, intended for students who excel academically, and/or artistically–that is, according to the admissions committee. Eight require applicant to take the Specialized High Schools Admissions (SHSAT): The Bronx High School of Science, The Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, High school for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College New York, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at Work College, Staten Island Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School. The ninth school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, requires students to both submit a portfolio and audition in a chosen talent area: “Fine & Visual Art, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music, Dance, Drama and Technical Theater.” The structures deeming certain students academically or artistically superior is racialized and classist.  Why is there a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in New York City’s specialized public high schools, despite the exceptional racial and ethnic diversity of the city at large? It is certainly not that children of color are less academically capable or artistically talented than their white counterparts. Therefore, what could it be?

According to the D.O.E. (Department of Education), there are 1,135,334 students in the NYC school system, making it the largest school district in the United States. The entire NYC public school system is 40.5% Hispanic, 26.0% black, 16.1% Asian and 15.0% White. There should therefore be a similar demographic breakdown when it comes to specialized public high schools, right? Well, not exactly. Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately rejected from specialized public high schools, despite making up collectively 66.5% of the city’s public school system. The crux of the problem is not that Black and Hispanic students neglect to take the S.H.S.A.T. (Specialized High School Admissions Test), but that are disproportionately denied admission into these specialized schools despite comprising the majority of students taking the test. An array of factors might influence student admission, possibly explaining the lack of Black and Hispanic student representation in specialized public high schools. For example, which students know about the S.H.S.A.T.? Which students are financially capable to paying for test preparation and administration? What middle school did they previously attend? The answers to these questions are all highly predicated on a handful of factors: the student’s race or ethnicity, familial socioeconomic status, their academic preparation and opportunity at his or her previous elementary and/or middle school. An array of reports address this issue. Although the demographics vary across all nine schools, the data overwhelmingly shows that Asian, White and Multiracial students were given the highest rates of admission, despite Latino, Asian and Black students being the vast majority of test takers. A Chalkbeat article writes, “students from only 10 middle schools make up a quarter of all specialized high school admissions offers — a total of 1,274 offers…almost four times more than all of the admissions offers to students living in the city’s 10 poorest districts combined.” This means children with savvy parents, knowledgeable about school zoning and choice, will be admitted into well established middle schools, and subsequently specialized public high schools. In turn, they will be positioned for success, having attended schools “celebrated for their track record of preparing graduates for Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers.” Student admission is skewed as “more than 30 percent of test-takers were Asians and more than 18 percent were White—percentages that are higher than citywide public school enrollment for both demographic groups.” Selective public high school admission is racialized, as children of color, despite applying to these schools and taking entrance exams, do not attend middle schools that funnel students into these specialized schools. Instead of having selective competitive high schools, all public schools should be equally funded, provide all children with culturally relevant curriculum, and prepare them to navigate the world in all of its social, political and intellectual complexities, equally. Dismantling an admissions system predicated intellectual exclusion, combined with racialized and classist structures, is the only way to remedy the lack of Black and Hispanic student representation in selective public high schools. New York City is rich with cultural, racial and socioeconomic diversity, it is crucial that its schools reflect that, providing equal educational opportunities to all students, regardless of their background or identity, and not only benefit those high scoring on standardized admissions tests. These changes might make New York City public schools truly representative of the city’s children and their racial and ethnic backgrounds instead of favoring students through a highly unequal admissions process, predicated on student’s familial financial state and previous academic preparation, often linked to their race or ethnicity.

Rita Gonzalez is a senior at Barnard College majoring in American Studies at Barnard College concentrating in Race & Ethnicity. She is a New York City native and graduated in 2015 from The Spence School for girls. Because she has a focus in race and ethnicity as well as personal relationship to the city, particularly as it pertains to education, this topic is highly relevant and was pertinent to her course of student and interests.