What Happened? Why Are the New York City Specialized High Schools (and Schools in General) So Segregated? Some History and Suggestions

It was February, 1964, my first high school teaching job at Wingate High School; I was hired as a substitute to fill a full term assignment and showed up nervous, only to see police barricades and a crowd waving signs, it was the first day of the Galamison integration boycott.  The sixties: anti-war demonstrations, a new militant teacher union, civil rights marches into the South, and, a school integration movement in New York City. Reverend Milton Galamison, the pastor at the Siloam Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant and allies led an attempt to integrate NYC schools. Clarence Taylor, “Knocking at Our Door: Milton Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools” (1997, 2001) recounts in detail the political struggles and infighting of the 60’s  that has reemerged more than a half century later and David Rogers, “110 Livingston Street: A Study of Politics and Integration in NYC Schools,” (1968) unearthed the conflicts within and outside of the Board of Education.

I have described the former Board of Education as a lump of silly putty, easy to impact and difficult to change permanently; characteristic of large bureaucracies.

A close friend and mentor, Chet Fulmer, in a reverse busing plan sent his children to an all-black school near the Brooklyn Navy Yard while across the city in Queens a community organization, Parents and Taxpayers (PAT) fought against busing black children into white schools.

I really liked Wingate, a great staff, it was an exciting place, and on the last day of school I received my appointment, not to Wingate, to James Madison High School; the school at which Chet was the union leader.

The Board’s ambitious elementary school busing plan faded away under unrelenting pressures; the Board did implement a high school plan, an all-black neighborhood was zoned into Madison; while the kids were welcomed by the staff the neighborhood surrounding Madison was not happy. Madison was probably chosen because Chet was the union leader and a staunch advocate and defender of integrated schools.

Almost a decade later, in December, 1973 a race-based riot erupted in and around Madison, Fran Schumer wrote a perceptive article (“Prisoners of Class”) a few weeks later in The Harvard Crimson and I blogged about the complexities of school integration a few months ago.

A half century later school integration is once again at the top of the political agenda.

Only seven Afro-American students received offers at Stuyvesant out of the 895 student offers, meaning, passed the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admittance Test).

The school integration efforts of the 60’s were not a failure. The City Colleges moved to open admissions, yes, highly controversial, a few school districts implemented integration plans.

Susan Edelman, in the NY Post, unearths surprising numbers, the currently segregated specialized high schools were not as segregated before mayoral control.

In 1984 [Brooklyn Tech] had 4,531 students — including 2,239 black and 814 white. Black and Hispanic kids made up 63.5 percent of the student body.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, black and Hispanic kids made up close to half or more of the Brooklyn Tech student body. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, the other original specialized schools, had many more black and brown kids than today, though not a majority.

Twenty-five years later New York schools are described as “extreme segregation.”

How did New York City move from continuing incremental steps towards integrated schools to the damning report of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, “New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future,”

New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

 The Civil Rights Project breaks out the numbers in detail – see charts/graphs here.

What happened?

 Changing Demographics:

The white school population continued to decrease, the school white population is currently 14.7%. The Black population has decreased slightly, the Hispanic population has increased and the Asian population has increased exponentially.  Chinese are the largest immigrant group entering New York City each year.

On the bright side, a just-released report  from the UCLA Civil Rights Project finds that public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods are becoming less segregated.

Multiple School Options:

There are a number of high achieving predominantly Black schools and a few well-integrated screened schools. Bedford Academy, and Medgar Evers,  are high achieving Black schools, Columbia Secondary High School is a high achieving integrated school. Go to “School Performance Dashboards” and check on any school.

 The Elimination of IGC and SP Classes

Under the old Board of Education there were citywide standards for Intellectually Gifted Classes (IGC) in grades 4-6 and Special Progress (SP) classes in grades 7-9 based on English and Math scores on city-wide tests; yes, there were state tests and city tests and district tests, without the complaints we hear today. A few districts had “gifted” elementary schools (District 7 – South Bronx and District 16 – Bedford Stuyvesant), The Bloomberg administration supported the  creation of centrally controlled Gifted and Talent classes, in predominantly white and/middle class districts and ended the major route to the specialized high schools for students of color.

Explosion of Test Preparation

The SHSAT is not aligned with the state ELA and Math tests; test preparation geared to the SHSAT is vital for students, and, expensive. Before mayoral control districts provided Saturday and after school tutoring programs, washed away under mayoral control.

Politics and Mayoral Control

The downside of mayoral control is using education policies for political advantage. The creation of numerous screened schools and programs in predominantly white/middle class schools appears to be a policy to attract white/middle class voters, conversely, not creating gifted and talented programs in schools in areas that oppose Bloomberg is an example of the downside of putting mayors in charge of education policy. deBlasio, who paints himself as the “progressive mayor” raced up to Albany in the closing days of the legislative session with a bill to replace the SHSAT with a percentage of highest achievers in each middle school; a policy supported by the progressives, the de Blasio constituency.

Either through the passage of a change in the law or the de Blasio tweaks to the Discovery Program it appears that the percentages of student of color in the elite high schools will begin to change; however, changing numbers does not change school and community cultures.

By 2020, each of the specialized schools that determine admission based solely on a single exam will be required to reserve 20 percent of their seats for students in the Discovery program. (Stuyvesant High School, which is participating in the program for the first time this year, admitted 23 students through Discovery. Under the mayor’s plan, the school will have to increase that number sevenfold.)

The NYC Human Right Commission Report that followed the racial conflict at Madison exposed the underlying problem; simply adding students of color without supports is a formula for failure. Read the NY Times article after the release of the NYC Human Rights Report.

The race for Gracie Mansion is in full swing, 2021 may be down the road, the candidates are defining themselves, aiming at possible constituencies. Corey Johnson, the leader of the City Council released his plan , a disastrous plan for the city. Johnson suggests more elite screened high schools and more gifted and talent schools/programs, effectively widening the “tale of two cities.” Johnson would create two school systems, one made of up higher achieving students segregated into high achieving schools leaving the remainder of the schools with struggling lower achieving students.

Jumaane Williams, the newly elected public advocate and a graduate of Brooklyn Tech, one of the legacy SHSAT schools, recommends, in an NY Daily News op ed a more measured approach, more gifted and talent programs and more opportunities for test prep in local schools, and, a great deal of community engagement.

Cristina Veiga at Chalkbeat tweeted a number of core questions that Johnson and Williams failed to address.

I’m concerned that many of the “solutions” will exacerbate a “tale of two cities” in schools; segregating kids by academic abilities. Once upon a time the system created comprehensive high schools, schools with a wide range of kids by ability and interests. Schools with advanced classes and shops, classrooms made up of kids with a range of academic abilities; yes, teaching was more challenging, what we call heterogeneous grouping in high schools requires different skill sets.

Career and Technical Education (CTE), formerly known as vocational education does not always require separate schools; these programs can be embedded in the larger high schools or embedded in schools on multiple school campuses.

We cannot create a “solution” to the elite high school enrollment problem that negatively impacts other schools.

The Discovery Program and test prep programs over time, will increase the enrollment at the specialized high schools. The specialized high school test can be more closely aligned with the state tests and curriculum.

Too often the “cure” only exacerbates the problem. There are no easy fixes, Corey Johnson’s response is an example; magic wands only work in fairy tales. Community engagement, by community I mean parents and teachers and advocacy organizations, difficult meetings, internal disagreements, over time leading to mutually acceptable accommodations; perhaps “creating a process where tolerable compromises can be found.”

Rule # 1 of personal and organization change: participation reduces resistance, coupled with Rule # 2, change is perceived as punishment.

This education stuff is hard, complicated and never-ending, as is life.


2 responses to “What Happened? Why Are the New York City Specialized High Schools (and Schools in General) So Segregated? Some History and Suggestions

  1. You missed the most important numbers in the SHSAT/application data set. The numbers of both Blacks and Latinos sitting for the SHSAT, meaning applying to the specialized schools, are both insufficiently large.

    Since sitting for the SHSAT is a required part of the application process the students taking the SHSAT and filling in those dots are the ONLY students applying to the specialized schools. And Asians are out-applying both Blacks and Latinos. While Asians do not apply to the schools at the highest rate they do consistently sit for the test and apply at over double the rate of Blacks and over triple the rate of Latinos.

    Plus, since the NYC public schools are NOT a closed system and private schools do exist the data set must be expanded to include all the Black and Latino students who are getting free educations at private schools. The FYI there being that those private schools do not want Asians.


  2. They are not as segregated as they used to be. NYC was always a ghettoized city. Not just by race, but by religion and ethnicity as well. In those ghetto scenarios, most were made up of poor immigrants and refugees. Parents of those children had very little education themselves, and were more then content to not question what was going on in their children’s schools. An uniformed parental body is an ineffective Principal’s best ally. Gentrification, which is really code fro integration, has brought forth a new dimension for school leaders to deal with, that being a more informed parental body. An ineffective Principal’s worse nightmare. No more “okeey doke” excuses for failure in some of our schools. With this trend continuing particularly in West Harlem and Bed not only will we see integrated schools,
    we will see more meaningful accountability. Gentrified folks are educated folks, and they know truth when they hear it, and they know how to move against false leaders.

    Presently, with the setting aside of 20 seats in each of our specialized HSs we are once again bringing out that old tired word to wit:Tokenism. With this plan there will be 80 minoity students in total added to the freshman classes at each of the specilaized Hss. I have always believed that if there is something good going on in education, then there needs to be more of what that good is. In this case that would be satellites of each of the specialized HSs. Lastly, it was almost 20 years ago, when a novice reporter was sent up to interview an iconic east harlem Principal, concerning a movememnt at that time to do away with formalized testing. After putting the question to the Principal, she replied to the novice reporter,with her own question. Has Harvard stopped testing their students. The novice replied in the negative. Turning her back and beginning to walk away, she paused, turned to the novice and said, you be sure to let me know when they do. Guess what?They still haven’t! Heaven forbid, anyone reading this message gets cancer, wouldn’t you think that such a patient would want a Doctor who passed all his/her exams, as opposed to some nonsensical portfolio assessment?


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