Student Leaders Fight to be Heard in New York City’s School Segregation Debate

Nelson Luna remembers walking into a classroom in Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan six years ago to take a test that would determine whether he would get into one of the best high schools in New York.

Right away, the surroundings made him feel uncomfortable: Nearly everyone around him was either white or Asian. He is Latino.

“I was extremely nervous — you even look at the resources, they had the nice pens and erasers, they looked prepped and ready to go, and I just had the yellow, dingy pencils I found in my house,” said Mr. Luna, whose parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and who lives in the Bronx. “They all knew each other, and my friends and I got split up.”

Mr. Luna, now 19, was in eighth grade at the time and was taking the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test — currently the only factor that determines whether a student gains admission to one of eight elite public high schools in the city. Only the top scoring students gain a coveted slots.

Mr. Luna did not score high enough to get into one of the elite schools. But his experience of feeling inadequate in the testing room fueled his decision to try to make a difference for students who come from less privileged backgrounds. In 2017, he co-founded Teens Take Charge, a student-led group that works to empower youth to speak out against inequities in the city’s public school system.

Black and Latino students make up 68 percent of all New York City public high school students, but they are just 9 percent of the population at the elite high schools, according to the New York City Department of Education.

In June 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a plan to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. The plan was part of an initiative that the mayor and chancellor said they hoped would increase racial diversity at the elite public schools.

In place of the admissions test, Mr. De Blasio proposed setting aside a certain number of slots for the top students in every middle school in the city. The plan requires approval from the state legislature.

“De Blasio wants to change the windshield wipers and we need a new car,” said Taylor McGraw, the facilitator and adviser for Teens Take Charge. “A system that would be integrated through race, class, ability status and schools that would truly reflect the diversity of New York City.”

The mayor’s proposal, which requires legislative approval, also led to large protests, with opponents saying that the test represented a merit-based way of determining the students who were most deserving of admission. Much of the opposition came from the Asian-American community, which believes that the current system is based on merit, and that the proposed changes would discriminate against students who feel they are qualified.

In the 2018-2019 school year, 73.1 percent of students attending Stuyvesant High School are identified as Asian.

Rachel Zhao, a 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant, said she believed it is unusual that the percentage of black and Latino students at her high school is small. But she said she still thought the process was fair.

“I support the test,” Ms. Zhao said. “I feel like it’s a uniform way of measuring how good a student is in terms of academic achievement.”

Although Teens Take Charge supported Mr. de Blasio’s proposal to replace the specialized test, the group said it believed that eliminating the test was only one part of solving the overall problem of integrating New York City’s segregated school system. The organization is calling on Mr. de Blasio to adopt a plan that would, among other things, require schools to have a mix of students who passed and failed eighth-grade state exams. They also are advocating for a system to ensure that eighth graders receive proper guidance in the high school application process.

The organization planned a protest on the steps of the city’s Department of Education building for early June, demanding that leaders take action on integration, Mr. McGraw said.

“We’re going to retaliate with direct action to let them know that we’re tired of waiting,” he said. “We want to make sure they understand the urgency of this issue, and that they start moving from dialogue to action.”

Ayana Smith, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx and a member of Teens Take Charge, said that integrating New York City’s elite public schools would allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to have the same opportunities as those of privilege.

Ayana Smith, 17, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx, said the specialized test should be eliminated. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

“Being exposed to different people, experiences and another way of looking at things enhances the learning process,” said Ms. Smith, who took the specialized test when she was 13 but did not score high enough to get into one of the elite high schools.

Whitney Stephenson, a Teens Take Charge co-founder, said she found it unfair that the qualifying test did not take into consideration students’ grades or whether students were at the top of their middle school graduating classes. By solely relying on the test for admissions, the elite schools were not taking into account racism long embedded in the nation’s education system, Ms. Stephenson said.

“That test,” she said, “is a symbol of inequity, segregation, racism — a broken system.”

Barring any changes, the specialized high school test will be given again this fall, after which the highest-scoring students will receive offers in score order.