I strongly believe what my parents preached: Education is life’s most valuable investment. How can our society make that investment for our children, our future? Not by eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) but by expanding the Gifted and Talented (G&T) Program in all districts throughout New York City.
The SHSAT is an equalizer, which gives students a fair chance to attend a specialized high school. The elimination of the SHSAT exam as a tool for advancement will marginalize low-income immigrant students. While everyone is focused on the current lack of diversity at the specialized high schools, let’s not forget that, 25 years ago, when I was a freshman at Brooklyn Technical High School, there were equal numbers of Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and Whites. The current low enrollment of black and brown students in specialized high schools is not a failure of the SHSAT, but the manifestation of the lack of available G&T seats. In the last 20 years, the City has eliminated the G&T program in minority neighborhoods.
The G&T Program has only 2,500 available spots and each year, 15,000 students take the exam since parents covet them as their children’s tracks into competitive middle and high schools. The demand is perpetually great, yet the City seems unwilling or unable to increase seats for the G&T program. Children who do not place in a G&T program hear a message that they are not worthy of a challenging, rigorous and engaging education. Why not change that narrative and increase the number of spots so that every community have a G&T Program?
I am a product of the New York City Public School System and know from experience that having G&T creates a diverse student body in the specialized high schools. My classmates and I were not privileged. My mother, a Chinatown seamstress, believed in my academic potential. Between the clatter of noisy sewing machines, she heard from fellow seamstresses that Wagner Junior High School in the Upper East Side could provide me an engaging and challenging education. Leaving the poor and working-class Lower East Side to attend school in one of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes – both are in Manhattan School District 2 – was a culture shock that I quickly overcame. I was expected to do well, not by my parents, but by my teachers and my peers.
When I was enrolled at Wagner in 1990, the G&T Program was available citywide, including low-income school districts. Educators identified advanced learners to enroll in the Special Progress (SP) Program where these students attended accelerated classes driven by a robust curriculum while they interacted with General Education students from various backgrounds in their own school districts. SP Program developed the potential of academically motivated students and held them accountable for high standards. At Wagner, SP faculty encouraged students to take the SHSAT. I excelled academically at Wagner and attended Brooklyn Tech from 1992-1996 where I relished the great diversity of my class. My fellow TechKnights’ pathways to Brooklyn Tech wound through middle schools with SP Program in their neighborhoods.
Soon after I graduated from Wagner in 1992, tracking fell out of favor and the DOE eliminated G&T in most schools. The elimination of accelerated academic program for high-potential students in the black and brown communities gradually reduced the enrollment of students of color in specialized high schools. Over time, it has resulted in the percentages we see today and the debate over specialized high school admissions criteria and integration.
The elimination of the SHSAT as a sole criterion for admission into specialized high schools will only hurt families like mine who are not privileged or well-to-do and must rely on public schools to engage and challenge their children academically. We must add more G&T programs in our City, rather than eliminating them in the name of equity. G&T Program provides quality instruction to high-performing students beginning at a young age. It would also reduce the current disparities by preparing more students for success in the SHSAT and entrance into specialized high schools.
Let’s not focus the narrative on eliminating the single test criteria but instead ask ourselves, “Are we satisfied with the state of our education system? Shouldn’t we provide quality education in New York City elementary schools?” It’s long past time to make common-sense changes that yield results.
Susan Lee is a City Council Candidate District 1 in Manhattan (www.susanleenyc.com).
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