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Opinion
 
Richard D. Kahlenberg

Elite, yet diverse schools: How Chicago did it

Published on Jun 24, 2014 10:17 AM
 
Chicago had previously been under a racial desegregation consent decree that employed racial quotas, but when the consent decree ended, the city sought a new way to promote fairness and diversity without relying on race. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

New York City's elite public high schools were always meant to provide a quintessentially American blend of academic excellence and democratic accessibility.

Unlike the city's expensive private schools, they would be free and open to all who were academically qualified, irrespective of pedigree.

"You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school - no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in 2012.

But this year, only 5 per cent of seats at those eight schools were offered to black students and 7 per cent to Latinos, in a city where the public schools are 70 per cent black and Latino. At Stuyvesant High School, just 3 per cent of offered seats went to black and Latino students.

When the number of black and Latino students admitted to a public school is a tiny fraction of their share of the general population, it raises red flags about the fairness of the admissions system.

New York City's eight selective public high schools base admissions on a single 2 1/2-hour assessment - the Specialised High Schools Admissions Test - which is unusual among other large public school systems in the nation.

The NAACP Legal Defence and Education Fund, along with other groups, has filed a federal civil rights complaint against this arrangement.

In his campaign for mayor, Mr Bill de Blasio called for diversifying these schools. His administration recently endorsed proposed state legislation that would broaden the criteria for admissions to the city's three original specialised high schools - Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School - where the use of the test is mandated by state law, to also include factors such as a student's grade point average, state exam scores and attendance. At the five other selective schools, Mr de Blasio has the power to change the criteria without legislation.

The proposed law moves in the right direction, but simply adding grades to test scores may not do much to promote equity. And giving students credit for attendance sounds a bit like the old joke that 80 per cent of success is in showing up.

Is there a way to capture a more meaningful notion of merit without throwing out the test - a system that rewards hard work and talent and also recognises the extra hurdles some students face?

Five years ago, I worked with Chicago public school officials to create a programme for their selective and magnet schools.

Chicago had previously been under a racial desegregation consent decree that employed racial quotas, but when the consent decree ended, the city sought a new way to promote fairness and diversity without relying on race.

Under the policy we developed, 30 per cent of students are admitted to Chicago's highly selective high schools (such as Walter Payton College Prep) based strictly on the traditional criteria of grades and test scores.

The remaining seats are allocated to the highest-scoring students from four different socioeconomic tiers, under the premise that students in the poorest parts of the city who score modestly lower on standardised tests have a lot to offer, given the obstacles they have had to overcome.

Demographers rank Chicago's census tracts from most to least advantaged by six criteria: median family income, average level of education attained by parents, percentage of single-family homes, percentage of homes where English is not the first language, percentage of homeowner-occupied residences, and school achievement scores by attendance area.

The policy has resulted in far more racial and ethnic diversity than in New York City's elite public schools.

At Walter Payton, 21 per cent of students are black and 25 per cent are Latino. Some critics worry that these numbers are still inadequate in a public school system where 41 per cent of students are black and 45 per cent Latino. But compared with Stuyvesant, Payton is a multicultural paradise.

Other critics argue that the system tilts too far in favour of children from low-income neighbourhoods. But the plan has proved to be the basis for a stable and enduring compromise.

Fears that students from low-income areas would fail have not come to pass, and Chicago's top selective schools still rank as the top three in the state.

New York City schools have never been subject to a citywide desegregation suit, and the state's schools are now more segregated than Mississippi's. But the unfortunate reality of segregation can be leveraged to promote a positive outcome in the city's elite schools. Isn't it time for New York City's top schools to recognise that excellence can be found among students of all racial and economic backgrounds?

NEW YORK TIMES