Nobody’s Special PLACE

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by PRESS NYC Parents for Responsive, Equitable, Safe Schools

A very vocal, single-minded lobbying group in New York, has declared the only way to “protect [New York City’s] specialized high schools” is to “preserve the competitive, objective and academic-focused” Specialized High School Admissions Test, or “SHSAT,” as the sole basis for entrance to these schools. According to Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum & Education, or PLACE NYC, any changes to this single-criterion policy would cause these “gems” of our city to decline.

The unspoken premise is that it’s the high-scoring students themselves who determine these schools’ excellence, so if we altered the selection mechanism, we’d diminish that quality. By this logic, a school’s quality is determined by the students who attend.

Teens Take Charge members at a protest.

But if schools are “good” and “bad” based on who enrolls, then what function does a school itself serve?

The SHSAT conversation has crystalized into who is worthy of the “best” education, and who is not. A dyslexic student who excels on projects but not tests; a student juggling multiple caregiving demands; a high-performing student who spends hours at soccer or debate practice — any student who is not laser-focused on preparing for this one test and does not exceed the ever-rising cut-off score — all, under this PLACE paradigm, fall among the undeserving.

To support a test which screens out 95% of Black and Latinx students who take it, is to perpetuate white supremacy. Its supporters, aware that the test does not disenfranchise all students of color, merely deflect, stating that if racism were at play, it would affect the Asian American population in the city.

Utilizing the success of Asian Americans as a way to dispel criticisms of racism, also known as the “model minority myth,” aligns with an American habit; a similar mythology was once imposed on the Jewish American community, and college admissions essays were created to screen out Jewish applicants. On November 17, Vanessa Leung, Chair of the Panel for Educational Policy, spoke powerfully about the harm this myth causes: “As an Asian American, I am tired of our community being used as a wedge. … It’s not only used historically to justify under-investments in communities of color across our country, but it actually … renders those who are suffering in the Asian-American community invisible… We need to …make decisions in our public schools centered around each other’s humanity, but also with a view of equity.”

It’s widely known that while two-thirds of the city’s students are Black and Latinx, they make up just 20% of Specialized High School students. Less known is that 70% of Asian American students who take the SHSAT are unable to qualify, and around 80% end up in non-Specialized high schools. Most students of every demographic in NYC are denied entry, and the false narrative of how this system helps the AAPI community must be met with facts: the vast majority of AAPI students are not served by these schools at all. And while the mayor was right during his November 23 press conference to offer an apology for excluding the Asian community from the reform process, the admissions policy remains inequitable and flawed.

Like Ms. Leung, we believe that every child — regardless of their parents’ admissions savvy, their test prep regimen, or any other factor — deserves high quality public schools, simply for being a young human to whom we owe our best. Instead of more “specialized” schools, let’s instead make every high school spectacular. Let’s provide the resources for deep, meaningful learning. Let’s do away with scarcity-by-design. All students deserve a public education that cultivates empathy, critical thinking, and cultural competency, and ensures young people become the community-oriented, engaged citizens needed for our democracy to flourish.

The existing system is championed by those who have figured out how to win at this game, with the rules as they are, and who are willing to say or do anything to protect the status quo, no matter the harm to children in all communities. We must reject this, and demand an equitable education for all of our children, whether that includes a specialized high school or not.

PRESS NYC, Parents for Responsive, Equitable, Safe Schools, is a parent collective, who hold the education press and the NYC mayor accountable. We lead on CECs, build learning communities with students, write anti-racist curriculum, have expertise in the challenges of navigating the system for students with disabilities, and demand that parents are able to engage with the DOE in their language. We expect the DOE to be responsive to the communities it serves, centered on equity, & grounded in health & safety.

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