New York City Will Change Many Selective Schools to Address Segregation

Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce Friday major changes to the way hundreds of New York City’s selective middle and high schools admit their students, a move intended to address long-simmering concerns that admissions policies have discriminated against Black and Latino students and exacerbated segregation in the country’s largest school district.

New York is more reliant on high-stakes admissions screens than any other district in the country, and the mayor has for years faced mounting pressure to take more forceful action to desegregate the city’s racially and socioeconomically divided public schools. Black and Latino students are significantly underrepresented in selective middle and high schools, though they represent nearly 70 percent of the district’s 1.1 million students.

But it was the pandemic that finally prompted Mr. de Blasio, now in his seventh year in office, to implement some of the most sweeping school integration measures in New York City’s recent history. They will be, by far, the mayor’s most significant action yet on integration.

With many schools shuttered, grading systems altered and standardized testing paused since the spring, the metrics that dictate how students get into screened schools have largely disappeared. That has made it next to impossible for many schools to sort students by academic performance as they have in previous years.

Still, changes forged in a crisis are now set to long outlast the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 crisis has exposed longstanding inequities in our city’s public schools,” the mayor said in a statement. “Now, as we rebuild our city, we are expanding opportunities for all public school students and doubling down on our mission to provide a quality education for all, regardless of a child’s ZIP code.”

The changes, which will go into effect for this year’s round of admissions, will affect how about 400 of the city’s 1,800 schools admit students, but will not affect admissions at the city’s specialized high schools or many of the city’s other screened high schools.

Mr. de Blasio and his successor will no doubt face pressure to integrate those schools, which are among the most racially unrepresentative in the system. But integrating specialized and screened high schools has long been considered a third-rail in the district, and changes made there would no doubt be highly contentious.

The city will eliminate all admissions screens for middle schools for at least one year, the mayor will announce. About 200 middle schools, or 40 percent of all middle schools, use metrics like grades, attendance and test scores to determine which students should be admitted. Now those schools will use a random lottery to admit students.

Selective middle schools tend to be much whiter than the district overall. Mr. de Blasio is essentially piloting an experiment that, if deemed successful, could permanently lead to the elimination of all academically selective middle schools.

The time frame for a final decision on whether to get rid of middle school screens for good, which will fall just a few months before Mr. de Blasio leaves office on New Year’s Day in 2022, instantly created a test for the crop of mayoral candidates to wrestle with.

The candidates will have to take a position on whether they would resume the particularly contentious practice of measuring the academic achievements of fourth graders to determine if they can attend a selective middle school, or get rid of middle school screens.

City officials said that because of the pandemic, there simply was not enough data to assess how rising middle school students were performing this year.

After schools were closed in March, the state’s standardized English and math exams were canceled, the mayor scrapped attendance records as a measure of achievement. Students in younger grades switched from a letter-grade system to one that indicated if they passed a class or need to repeat it.

In 2018, one local district, Brooklyn’s District 15, eliminated all of its middle school screens and switched to a lottery admissions system. That closely watched effort was years in the making and was heralded as one of the most substantial desegregation measures in years. Now that change will be extended across the city.

The admissions process for selective schools typically takes place in the fall, but was delayed this year because of the pandemic. Families can start applying to middle schools under the new system in early January until the week of Feb. 8.

In another large shift, New York will also eliminate a policy that allowed some high schools to give students who live nearby first dibs at spots — even though all high school seats are supposed to be available to all students, regardless of where they live. That system of citywide choice was implemented by former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2004 as part of an attempt to democratize high school admissions.

But some schools and even entire districts were exempted from that policy by Mr. Bloomberg, and Mr. de Blasio did not end those carve outs. The most conspicuous example is in Manhattan’s District 2, one of the whitest and wealthiest of the city’s 32 local school districts. Students who live in that district, which includes the Upper East Side and the West Village, get priority for seats in some of the district’s high schools, which are among the highest-performing schools in the city.

No other district in the city has as many high schools set aside for local students as District 2.

Many of those high schools fill nearly all of their seats with students from District 2 before even considering qualified students from elsewhere. That has made some schools, like Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, some of the whitest high schools in all of New York City.

Mr. de Blasio, who campaigned on a message of combating inequality in all aspects of city life, has always had the authority to get rid of that admissions priority and all other ones in New York City. But he has not exercised that power until now, and is doing so only after the principals of some of the most prestigious District 2 high schools publicly called on the city to diversify their schools by getting rid of the admissions preference.

“As a public servant of a public school, it is my mission to educate as many students from as many different backgrounds who represent the abundance of the city in which we live,” Dimitri Saliani, the principal of Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote in an email to parents this week. “The lack of diversity among students, faculty and staff is a disservice to our community as a whole.”

New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, and his top deputies have for years urged Mr. de Blasio to get rid of District 2 preference, according to officials with direct knowledge of those conversations.

The city will eliminate the District 2 priority and all other district priorities for this admissions cycle, and then remove geographic preferences for all other individual high schools that use them for next year’s admissions. Some of those other high schools are not highly academically selective, but base admission in part on geography.

Mr. de Blasio will also announce Friday that the city will issue grants to five districts to be used to develop diversity plans, in the model of what District 15 parents did to eliminate their middle school screening system. Over the next four years, all 32 districts will receive support from the city to create their own integration plans.

The sweeping admissions changes still fall short of what many integration activists had hoped for throughout Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.

The mayor’s only major previous attempt to integrate schools — pushing the State Legislature to get rid of the entrance exam for the city’s elite specialized high schools — failed. In 2018, Mr. de Blasio said he would fight to eliminate the exam for eight top high schools, which are overwhelmingly Asian-American and white and have tiny percentages of Black and Latino students.

Those eight schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science, are among the only public schools in New York City that Mr. de Blasio does not control. Instead, the Legislature has authority over how those schools admit students.

The mayor’s focus on the specialized school entrance exam prompted sharp criticism that the mayor was discriminating against the low-income Asian-American children who attend those schools in large numbers.

Mr. de Blasio also struggled to answer questions about why he would not address segregation in other high schools he did control, including Beacon High School in Midtown Manhattan, that are largely attended by middle-class white students. He has largely ignored a recommendation from a task force he created that the city overhaul its gifted and talented program, which is also starkly segregated.

The city will also announce Friday that it will administer in January this year’s specialized high school exam, which was delayed by the pandemic. The state requires the city to offer the test, which is typically given in October.

Mr. de Blasio will not announce sweeping changes to how screened high schools like Beacon will admit students. Instead, each selective high school can keep, scrap or change their policies, depending on student performance data available during the pandemic. Selective performing arts high schools will hold their auditions virtually.

For the first time, high schools will be required to publicly post their admissions criteria and rubrics for assessing students.

Students can begin high school applications the week of Jan. 18 until the week of Feb. 22.

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