New York City High Schools’ Endless Segregation Problem

Seven black students were accepted to Stuyvesant High School this year. Five years ago, the number was exactly the same.

Exterior of Stuyvesant High School
Mary Altaffer / AP

The first sentence of the New York Times story was like a blow to the gut. “Seven black students have been offered a chance to start classes at Stuyvesant High School in September,” out of 952 total offers. It was two fewer black students than the nine the school had accepted the year prior in a freshman class of 963 students. In response, a state lawmaker declared that he would redraft a bill he had introduced three years earlier to change the admissions policies at the school; the city reeled. It was 2014.

On Monday, almost five years later to the day, the New York City Department of Education released data about the students admitted to its vaunted selective schools. More than 27,000 eighth graders took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) this year—a rigorous aptitude test that is the sole factor for admission to eight of the nine selective high schools—and 4,798 students received offers based on those exam scores. Of those offers, 10.5 percent went to black and Latino students—a tenth of a tick up from the 10.4 percent of offers in 2018—despite New York City’s public schools being nearly 66 percent black and Latino.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that, at this point, this is the result that the New York City public-school admissions infrastructure seems designed to produce. But the result is so galling that, year after year, it triggers a shocked response. Monday’s Times headline: “Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.” A different byline, a different year, the same problem. Only seven students, again.

“We’re … once again confronted by an unacceptable status quo at our specialized high schools,” Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the New York City public-school system, said in a statement. “We need to eliminate the single test for specialized high-school admissions now.”

The public schools in New York State are the most segregated in the country, according to a 2014 study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. That’s largely driven by New York City. The selective high schools are by no means the only places where inequality exists in the system, but they are the most visible, the easiest apple to pick. The black enrollment at Stuyvesant peaked in 1975, according to state records highlighted in a 2012 profile in the Times, when there were 303 black students out of 2,536 total. “In 1980, there were 212 black students; in 1990, 147; in 2000, 109; and in 2005, 66.” Last year, there were 24 black students, according to city data. The SHSAT was introduced as the sole admissions criterion for the school in 1972.

Rudi-Ann Miller, a black woman who attended Stuyvesant and whom the Times followed for the 2012 story, had her five-year high-school reunion last year. In an interview on Wednesday, she told me that she was the only black student who showed up. Even though there were a handful of black students in her class, “it wasn’t an experience that they wanted to go back and celebrate,” she says. Stuyvesant is diverse, she says—among the Asian population, in particular—but the low number of black and Latino students made her experience difficult. “I’m not going to sugarcoat my experience and say it was lovely and great and this amazing intellectual challenge,” she says. “There were also a lot of social issues to deal with.” Still, she added, it was the “best educational opportunity in the city.”

Last year, when I interviewed Carranza for a profile examining the city’s efforts to desegregate the public schools, he reflected on his career. “Everywhere I’ve ever lived and worked, there are systems and structures that promulgate certain outcomes,” he told me. “The systems and structures give you what you get. And what I’ve found is that what you get is low performance for kids of color, low opportunities for kids of color, poor kids, kids that have historically been underserved.”

Miller says that she was the only student in her majority-Latino middle school who planned to take the selective high-school placement test. Many of her fellow students didn’t know about it, she says. The city has expanded efforts to inform more students about the test, and provide preparatory tutoring for them, but the needle still has not moved on black enrollment. Miller isn’t sure that getting rid of the test altogether is a good idea, but she is concerned that the test can be gamed. She took a prep course, and she heard of several other people who took three or four. Some students can learn how to take the test and get a leg up; others think the odds are so stacked against them that it isn’t even worth it to try.

It is likely that next year the internet will be shocked once again by the staggering disparity in black enrollment at Stuyvesant, and there will be another conversation about what needs to happen to fix it. And then it’s likely to happen again the year after that.