office interview

UNITED BY A THREAT: Yiatin Chu (left) and Amy Tse said they were among hundreds of Asian parents who got involved in groups like the New York City Resident Alliance due to alarm at a push by the Mayor and his Schools Chancellor to eliminate the exam for admission to specialized high schools, because they worried it was meant to reduce the number of Asian students attending them. ‘We have solidarity in the Asian communities—Bill de Blasio and Carranza brought us together,’ one of them said.

Yiatin Chu recalled a June 13 meeting at Gracie Mansion where she and four other parent activists from the Asian community came to discuss their concerns about a bill to abolish the test used to determine admission to the city’s specialized high schools with Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and discovered they were outnumbered by 15 representatives from Asian non-profit organizations that generally supported the plan.

“I went up to Carranza afterward and I said, ‘I felt like this meeting was stacked,’ ” she said in a July 9 interview. “You invited only five parents, and these other people are from organizations that get city money.”

Mr. Carranza didn’t respond, she said. But when she subsequently learned that a day earlier, he had been in Albany lobbying for the bill that would have done away with the Specialized High School Admissions Test, Ms. Chu said it became clear that he and Mr. de Blasio, who during the meeting expressed regret about not consulting the Asian community before launching the legislative push 12 months earlier, granted them the audience for pacification purposes rather than serious dialogue.

‘Should Have Pulled Bill and Started Over’

“I felt if they were really genuine in their apology, they would have pulled that bill and started over,” she said.

A week after that sit-down, the State Legislature adjourned without any action on the Mayor’s bill aside from it narrowly clearing the Assembly Education Committee. By that time, a countermeasure sponsored by State Sen. Leroy Comrie of Queens and Assemblyman Peter Abbate of Brooklyn had been introduced that would preserve the SHSAT while increasing the number of specialized high schools citywide from eight to 18, provide free test-prep to all sixth- and seventh-graders to ready them to take the exam in eighth grade, and require every school district in the city to offer at least one gifted-and-talented program for students beginning in kindergarten.

That bill was presented too late to get serious consideration, but being sponsored by an influential African-American Senator and the head of the Assembly Committee on Government Employees seemed to signal its chances of moving next year were better than those of the Mayor’s bill scrapping the SHSAT.

“We were very optimistic that the bill from Senator Comrie has a lot of merits,” Ms. Chu said, calling it a “great thing for all communities” that it would mandate early expansion of gifted-and-talented programs, which were severely reduced during Michael Bloomberg’s final term as Mayor, with small restorations under Mr. de Blasio. She explained that proficiency in math—a prime component of success on the SHSAT—and English and Language Arts “can’t be accomplished in one or two years or a summer-prep course.”

That made it vital, she continued, that students interested in gaining admission to the three elite schools at the center of the Mayor’s offensive against the test—Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant High—be given work that would challenge them from the time they began elementary school.

She spoke from experience, noting that her daughter, Emily, had been enrolled in a prep course given by the Anderson Center beginning when she was 5, and Ms. Chu hired a private tutor when she was preparing to take the SHSAT. The tutor began Emily’s instruction by giving her a practice test that she scored high enough on to qualify for admission to Bronx Science, from which her mother had previously graduated.

“She had a stellar preparation period,” Ms. Chu said of her daughter, who ultimately decided to attend Stuyvesant, which was much closer to their home, and is about to enter her senior year at McGill University in Montreal. “A lot of parents had the tutoring.”

She was referring to other members of the Asian community, including those with modest incomes who concluded that the $1,500-to-$2,000 they would spend in a year on test prep was not only a good investment, it was cheaper than what they would spend on “tennis or taekwondo or piano lessons” for their children.

Amy Tse, who is active in the New York City Resident Alliance, which has been sharply critical of the push against the SHSAT by the Mayor and Chancellor Carranza, noted that the test-prep centers served additional purposes for Asian parents who were not fluent in English: they offered homework assistance to their kids and provided child care for a few hours until the parents could return home from their jobs.

Local School Concerns

For numerous Asian residents, she, Ms. Chu and two other activists who did not want to be quoted by name said, concerns about the adequacy of public education where they live were not unlike those felt by black and Latino parents.

“In many of these neighborhoods,” Ms. Chu said, “these are not great schools, and they’re hoping these centers can help [their children] bridge that gap so they can compete against students at better schools.”

Asked about the relatively low enrollment of Asians in the city’s charter schools, they cited factors including that most of those schools are based in black and Latino neighborhoods where few of them live, and they are reluctant to send their kids to school in relative isolation.

They are aware of the criticisms of some charter-school networks: that they are test-prep factories rather than centers of genuine learning, that they cherry-pick students to limit the number of non-English-speakers, those with learning disabilities and behavioral problems, and get an extra advantage because the parents who are aware of them tend to be more actively involved in their children’s education. But Ms. Chu noted, “Charter schools, with all the faults [that are] cited, there are people who are lining up hoping to get their students in.”

Daunted by Process

“A block away from my school is a charter school,” she said, referring to the Manhattan Charter School for Curious Minds in Chinatown. But most Asian parents in the neighborhood send their children to the Shuang Wen School on Cherry St., and one of her colleagues said the reasons had to do with language issues: “I don’t think the parents at Shuang Wen have the ability to research the system or fill out the application for the [charter school’s] lottery.”

Ms. Chu’s sophistication about the school system and the battle to preserve the SHSAT has been gained on a tight learning curve: she said she first became engrossed in the issues in March because of growing concerns about the intentions of the Mayor and Mr. Carranza.

“I was a private New Yorker living my very private life,” she said. Her background was in health care and online media, and she acknowledged that last November was the first time she voted in an election, describing herself as symptomatic of what has limited Asian political clout. The community, she said, while the fastest-growing in the city, is less populous than blacks and Latinos “and we don’t pull as many people out to the polls.”

Her younger daughter is a student at the Shuang Wen School, which is P.S. 184, and Ms. Chu said, “I was a working mom and they were in good schools and they were fairly independent students.”

But the more she heard about the bill to end the use of the SHSAT, the more concerned she grew. Soon she learned of forums being sponsored by State Sen. John Liu, the former City Comptroller who in January returned to public office, five years after an unsuccessful run for Mayor against Mr. de Blasio derailed his political career.

‘A Dearth of Good Schools’

She attended most of them, and said that a common topic among parents was not the specialized high schools but “how disappointing many of their community schools were.”

That theme was echoed by one of her colleagues who didn’t want to be quoted by name. That woman, whose daughters are 9 and 6, said that in the debate over the SHSAT, “We’re really not getting to the heart of the issue: there’s a dearth of good schools, and there’s so much competition for these seats. Some progressives, I hear, have a philosophical opposition to testing. It’s easy [for them] to dismiss somebody’s concerns [about preserving the test] and say, ‘you’re racist, why are you opposing diversity?’“

This woman, who came here with her family from Hong Kong when she was 5 and was graduated from Brooklyn Tech, was among those who was struck by a disconnect between the Mayor’s rhetoric about the SHSAT and his own family history.

As Ms. Chu noted, “He said he’s against high-stakes testing, but he subjected his son to it and then going to this ‘segregated school,’ ” referring to Tech.

“Very hypocritical,” Ms. Tse put in.

She was equally unsparing in responding to a comment made in early spring by Mr. Carranza that the 1971 Hecht/Calandra Law requiring that the SHSAT be the basis for admission to Tech, Stuyvesant and the Bronx Science had been designed to keep them from being integrated.

Prevents Favoritism

“These schools are meant to give students a chance to rise up,” Ms. Tse said. “If not for Hecht/Calandra, in my opinion these schools would be like a university: who you know, what you give would determine who got in.”

What was particularly galling, the women said, were Mr. Carranza’s calling the law an attempt to beat back integration and his response to the backlash from the Asian community that the specialized schools weren’t the property of any particular ethnic group.

During the Gracie Mansion meeting, according to one of the women who was present, “Carranza said that statement was taken out of context.”

He was challenged on that claim, she said, by Chris Kwok, an attorney with the Asian American Federation who also told the Mayor “that there’s been a lot of damage done in the Asian community” by the campaign to abolish the SHSAT “and a public apology would be a good start.”

Ms. Chu, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan with her family when she was 8, said she wasn’t surprised that Mr. de Blasio was unwilling to go beyond repeating what he had previously said: that if he had the chance to do it again, he would have approached the issue more collegially with the Asian community.

But she remained exasperated by Chancellor Carranza’s remarks, saying, “I think he needs to look at the history of these schools.”

She was alluding to the fact that Dante de Blasio wasn’t an outlier in terms of the racial makeup of the specialized schools—particularly Brooklyn Tech—over the years when Mr. Carranza was claiming the SHSAT had the effect of blocking integration. Of particular pain to both the Chancellor and the Mayor—certainly from a political standpoint—has been that one particular Tech grad, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, has been especially eloquent about the need to preserve the test, even while urging other changes in admissions criteria to improve the chances of black and Latino students getting into the specialized schools.

Clash of Expectations

In May, he had a memorable exchange with Assemblyman Charles Barron, who has always tried to make up in militancy what he lacks in nuanced thinking, during an Assembly hearing in Manhattan concerning the Mayor’s push to end use of the SHSAT.

Referring to its proposal to stock Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science with the top 7 percent of students from all middle schools based on grade-point-average, Mr. Barron asserted, “The Public Advocate is not supporting a bill that’s gonna get [black and Latino students] from 9 percent to 45 percent. Shame on you.”

Mr. Williams responded that the bill “makes people believe that their communities are somehow dumber than others. The way it’s being presented, they’re saying your kids are too dumb to pass the test.” This approach, he said, was “not leadership. It’s politics at its worst.”

He and Kirsten John Foy, a former top aide to Mr. de Blasio during his time as Public Advocate, noted that when they were students at Brooklyn Tech a quarter-century earlier, the student body was 50 percent black. Mr. Foy has headed an initiative bankrolled by billionaire Ronald Lauder and Richard Parsons, one of the nation’s most-prominent black businessmen, that would preserve the SHSAT while funding the kind of test-prep effort that is a prime component of the Comrie/Abbate bill.

Some critics of the Mayor’s plan point out that he could implement it unilaterally for five other elite high schools not covered under the Hecht/Calandra Law yet has opted not to do so. Ms. Tse said that there were also a number of other “high-achieving schools whose population is mainly white that de Blasio isn’t saying anything about” altering their admissions process, among them Townsend Harris H.S. in Queens and Eleanor Roosevelt High on the Upper East Side, which, it turns out, will be attended starting this fall by the 14-year-old daughter of one of the activists who accompanied her.

‘Bullet Train of Diversity’

The women also wondered why the Department of Education has pursued a gradual integration process in District 2, one of the city’s top school districts that snakes its way from neighborhoods like Tribeca and Chelsea to also cover the Upper East Side, while, as one of them put it, abolishing the SHSAT became “the bullet train of diversification.”

Ms. Chu said, “10 percent black and Latino students in Stuyvesant is an atrocity. We need to fix that. But that didn’t happen in just a few years. It’s time and hard work to fix our public schools, from kindergarten to eighth grade, and transform the education system.”

But rather than put in that work, Ms. Tse said, Mr. de Blasio had given Chancellor Carranza “free rein [and] he’s chosen the kind of students he wants to help.”

Ms. Chu said it was understandable that Assemblyman Barron, given the racial makeup of his district, was doing what she called “fighting for his community, which is what he was elected to do.” She and Ms. Tse, a legal secretary for a corporate law firm, said that what mystified them was how Mr. de Blasio, with a larger, far-more-diverse constituency, could have the same narrow focus.

“He’s cast aside our community because we’re not important to his political ambitions,” Ms. Chu said.

Ms. Tse added, “I think he sees there are 41 percent Latino students and a slightly smaller number of black students, compared to 14 or 15 percent Asian students. When you’re looking at it from a politician’s view, you’re going to go with the group that has more votes.”

‘Tearing Apart DOE’

But the effect, she said, has not only alienated people in the Asian community, “I think it’s totally tearing apart the Department of Education.”

She was referring to complaints by some administrators who have undergone the implicit-bias training ordered by Mr. Carranza that the instructors have belittled white participants who said they became concerned about helping people because of their own families’ experiences, and cited one case in which a parent who asked why a chart delineating a “racial-advantage hierarchy” had not included Asians was told that they “benefitted from white supremacy” and “proximity to white privilege.”

Those kinds of remarks no doubt would have made the late Ralph Ellison cringe while laughing at the irony of reducing another ethnic group to a race of invisible men and women.

The Gracie Mansion meeting was arranged in the wake of a letter to the Chancellor two weeks earlier from Resident Alliance President Derek Zang that stated, “When you foster a climate in which people with different views or who offer their own insight, which may not be perfectly aligned with yours, that is antagonistic and combative [and] you are guilty of bias…We respectfully ask you to be sensitive to the discriminatory and alienating tone of the anti-bias training, and especially to the heavy-handed manner in which it is being rolled out.”

Ten days later, Mr. Carranza gave indications he believed he was the one being unjustly maligned, saying during a press conference at DOE headquarters, “There are forces in this city that want me to be the good minority and be quiet and don’t say a word.” He also claimed a different standard was applied to minority Chancellors, although there was little evidence of that concerning the seven black and Latino appointees to the job over three decades prior to Mr. de Blasio’s election.

The Mayor’s pushing for the SHSAT’s abolition without any discussions with the Asian community whose students seemed to be facing a potential quota was bound to produce a backlash.

Ms. Tse said her activism began 13 months ago after she concluded that “the Mayor’s plan was not about education. It was rolled out in a racial way.”

A Movement of Parents

At that time, she noted, those who were protesting did not include political leaders—”you just had the parents coming out in the rallies.”

In those circumstances, she said, Mr. de Blasio may have figured he could bulldoze his bill through. Mr. Liu, who would not regain political office for another six months, was not an obvious threat to its passage until he joined the Legislature, and Mr. Williams at the time was in the midst of a hard-fought but quixotic campaign for Lieutenant Governor, challenging incumbent Kathy Hochul in a manner that guaranteed that Governor Cuomo would muster all his resources on her behalf.

It would have taken a politician with more vision than Mr. de Blasio has shown through 66 months in office to imagine Mr. Liu’s re-emergence as a force, Mr. Williams earlier this year gaining the platform as Public Advocate that he himself had once used as a springboard to the mayoralty, and his old aide Mr. Foy becoming another key foe of the campaign to end the SHSAT.

And to what purpose? A political talking point to be trotted out for the Mayor’s run for the White House that has since been described as “presidential fantasy camp”?

Mr. de Blasio and the Chancellor both may be working on borrowed time, with their terms likely to end in 30 months unless Mr. Carranza moves on sooner, but the hard time they had in Albany, culminating with the introduction of the Comrie/Abbate bill that figures to have a lot more traction than their initiative next year, raises questions as to how long they want to spin their wheels.

Since the legislative session ended, Ms. Chu said, “I haven’t heard anything” from city officials about trying to find some middle ground, adding that “a lot of us are evaluating the points in the Comrie bill” to see whether it will meet alleviate their concerns with just a bit of tweaking.

City Hall’s alternative, she said, rather than aiming at meaningful change that goes beyond the specialized schools, “is a short-cut, it is a headline. And that is what angers me the most, aside from the racial politics they’re using. It is not doing any of these communities a service.”

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