No discussion about segregation in New York City’s public schools can be complete without reference to one of its most pervasive forms—academic isolation.
The Department of Education—despite its own study showing the risks—has concentrated thousands of struggling high school students in about 100 buildings and programs.
This concentration of high-needs students is a product of current screening procedures and the city’s complicated high school assignment process. It directly contradicts the findings that when high-need students are concentrated in high schools, it becomes much more difficult for all students to succeed and graduate.
For example, the Parthenon Report to the DOE in 2008 found that the chances for graduation for a black or Hispanic ninth-grade girl with average test scores and attendance differed significantly depending on the proportion of academically challenged students in her school.
Yet academic isolation continues. Our recent analysis demonstrated that students who scored 2.54 or below on 8th-grade state reading tests are now clustered in about 75 of the city’s roughly 420 high schools. The average graduation rate of these is below 70 percent, ranging to as low as 27 percent. The roughly 350 remaining high schools show incoming average reading scores of 2.71 or better; their graduation rates range from 70 to 100 percent.
In theory, the student-choice system instituted by former Mayor Bloomberg should solve this problem. In fact, the choice system has magnified it.
The complexity of the application process and the various screening methods employed by schools—from academic qualifications to geographic preferences to demands that parents attend orientation and information sessions—serve to deter working-class and immigrant families, whose children often face more academic challenges, from full participation.
There are specific steps the system could take now to reduce academic segregation in the high school system.
Some schools—including those in the UFT’s PROSE program—have already moved in the right direction. Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, even as more advanced students applied, worked to ensure that it admitted students from across the academic spectrum, as did the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn. Yet both have maintained high graduation rates.
The complex algorithm used to assign students in the high school admission process should be tweaked—as national research and the DOE’s own study suggested—to ensure that no schools develop an undue concentration of struggling students.
The hundreds of high schools that use some kind of screening criteria must adapt those criteria to an “ed-option” formula—one that ensures that the schools will admit students from across the achievement spectrum. We applaud the work done by individual Community School Districts in New York City to reduce screening barriers, and the spotlight Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza have given this issue. But we need to do more.
Principals have traditionally been rated largely on Regents' passing rates and graduation metrics, providing a strong incentive to school leaders to admit already successful students. The Chancellor should mandate that fully serving an academically diverse population is a significant measure of a Principal’s success.
Properly managed, academic integration can have a dramatic effect on student success rates. A recent study of Stamford, Conn. showed student achievement increased across all groups in academically integrated schools, even as the racial achievement gap shrank.
By addressing academic integration, New York City can continue investing in our high schools, so that whatever the profile—from large comprehensive school to small themed school or a specialized career and tech institution—every student has the opportunity to succeed.
Janella Hinds is a United Federation of Teachers vice president for academic high schools.
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