Stories & Grievances
The Racial Divide in New York City
At Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn and Booker T. Washington Middle School 54, students are forbidden from applying to the colleges and high schools they like due to 'pre-selection' by NYC DOE Employees
October 16, 2004
Amid Policy Confusion, Senior Is Allowed to Apply to Harvard
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, NY TIMES
With an 86.6 average that ranks her 11th in her class at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, Kimberly Cummins knows that she is not a shoo-in at Harvard, which she hopes to attend next year. But Miss Cummins, who is on the school yearbook staff, spent two years on the varsity track team and is enrolled in four Advanced Placement courses, thinks she has a shot.
What she was not prepared for, she said, was for officials at the high school to tell her that she could not even try, that only the top five students in the school could submit applications to Ivy League schools and that no one was permitted to apply to any school under early-decision or early-action rules, under which applications to many colleges are due by Nov. 1.
What school officials apparently were not prepared for was for Miss Cummins's older sister, Kelia, a law student at New York University, to take up her case. They did not expect Kelia Cummins to raise such a ruckus by calling elected officials, lawyers, judges and advocacy groups that top city education officials would be forced to publicly clarify the college application rules.
Late yesterday, Eric Nadelstern, a veteran superintendent who oversees Boys and Girls High School, said the matter had been resolved. Miss Cummins will be able to apply to Harvard by the early-action deadline. And, he said, the school's principal, Spencer Holder, will follow citywide rules allowing students to apply where they want.
"The principal, who is a new interim acting principal, is clear that students at this school, as throughout the city, have the right and opportunity to apply to whichever colleges they choose to apply to," Mr. Nadelstern said. "And the school is obligated to support that application."
Mr. Nadelstern said that college counselors were still expected to meet with students and to help them set reasonable expectations. "Speaking to students about which schools are realistic, based on their high school record, doesn't preclude the student or family option to apply to that school anyway," he said.
In Kimberly Cummins's case, he added, "We're going to keep our fingers crossed that she gets in."
Miss Cummins was pleased with the decision, "I know it may not be a sure thing," she said. "But the thing I strongly feel about is I should not be denied the right to apply to any school."
The case at Boys and Girls High School, which serves 4,700 students in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, underscored what education officials acknowledge to be woefully inadequate college advising services in the city's public schools.
In low-performing schools with few graduates, there can be limited information and advice for college-bound students. In high-performing schools, where most students apply to college, the counselors are often swamped, and some schools limit the number of applications students can submit because the counselors cannot handle all of the paperwork that accompanies each form.
In an interview, Mr. Holder, the principal at Boys and Girls, said that the complaints by Miss Cummins and her sister arose out of a misunderstanding and that the school never told her she could not apply to Harvard. "Our students are allowed to apply to wherever they want," he said.
Mr. Holder and his assistant principal for guidance, Cheryl Lewis, said the school worked hard to meet the college counseling needs of its students. The school's 400 seniors would begin working with college counselors next week.
"We just got over making sure everybody got registered for the SAT," Mr. Holder said. "Now we are going to start getting them lined up in terms of where they are going to apply."
But even with four guidance counselors working with the seniors, it would be virtually impossible for students to meet the Nov. 1 deadline for early-decision applications. For most schools, the regular application deadline is Jan. 1.
Frank Mickens, who retired last month as principal of Boys and Girls and long enjoyed a reputation as a no-nonsense administrator, said that school officials were obligated to discourage students from applying to colleges out of their reach.
"This school has never, ever during 18 years I was there, denied kids opportunities," he said. "We had to consult with parents and say this is what we recommend based on our contacts and college fairs."
Even among the best students, he said, only some would be eligible for Ivy League schools. "Don't you think we have contact with the Ivy League schools? Is our experience working with colleges and universities around the country worth anything?"
Kelia Cummins said she thought her sister should be permitted to apply to as many top schools as she wanted. And she made it a mission to persuade school officials. She called the principal and the 311 hotline, contacted a federal judge who is a Boys and Girls alumnus, reached out to law partners at a prestigious Manhattan firm, enlisted N.Y.U. classmates to make a blizzard of phone calls. She also contacted the public advocate, two City Council members and Advocates for Children, a nonprofit group that monitors city schools.
Kelia Cummins graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and earned her bachelor's degree and a master's degree in public health at George Washington University before enrolling at New York University Law School, where she is the editor of The Review of Law and Social Change.
She said that she was pleased that her sister would be able to apply to Harvard, but that there was a larger point. "The problem is bigger than Kimberly," she said. "We want to make sure that other students like her are not disadvantaged in the future."
Booker T. Washington MS 54 Allows Only DELTA students an Opportunity to Take the Specialized Science High School Achievement Test (SSHAT)
by Betsy Combier, The E-Accountability Foundation
In April 2002 parents of 7th graders in the Delta and NOVA Programs at Booker T. Washington MS 54 on Manhattan's Upper West Side were invited to an evening discussion about high school admissions.
Upon arrival, big signs greeted us:
"DELTA parents please go into the auditorium".
"NOVA" parents please go upstairs to room _______"
The DELTA parents were given the applications to the Specialized High Schools' Admissions Test for Stuyvesant High School and the other specialized science schools in the city. Everyone was encouraged to apply to take the test by Barbara Von Zernak, the Guidance Counselor.
The NOVA parents were not told anything about the specialized high schools, and when a parent called the Guidance Counselor the next day to find out why, she was told that the NOVA children could not apply to take the test. The specialized high schools were not for them.
Guidance counselors in New York City routinely sift through their student population and 'decide' who can apply for the better schools and who cannot. The E-Accountability Foundation spoke with parents in Brooklyn, Manhattan (Harlem) and Queens, and found out that this practice is widespread. Many parents were shocked to hear that their children could have taken the SSHAT, as they were never told. Others were told outright that their children could not take the test. Period. However, the Hecht-Calandria Law which established Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn "Tech" and La Guardia High School for Music and Art mandated that State funds be used to test students living in New York City for entrance to these schools without any regard for their previous academic achievement, economic level, race, etc.
We also have many serious questions about the "200 Club", as we call the schools picked to be exempt from the regimented and mandated curriculum (basically, versions of 'fuzzy math' and whole language, with bi-lingual education thrown in for good measure), and the 'autonomous' schools allowed by Bloomberg/Klein to do whatever they want. How were these schools picked? No one in front of the closed door leading to Tweed's New Ring, knows.
Complaints Pour In Over N.Y.C. Curriculum Exemptions
By David J. Hoff, EDWEEK, March 5, 2003
A debate over how New York City selected more than 200 schools to exempt from a new citywide curriculum is detracting from the system's efforts to improve its instructional program, critics and analysts maintain.
The city's department of education announced last month that 208 schools could choose their own reading and mathematics curricula because they had demonstrated success on the district's tests in those subjects. But the method that school officials used to choose what detractors are calling the "200 Club" is under attack.
Some say the method overlooks the success of certain schools and lowers expectations for others serving needy students.
"It is very, very difficult to design an appropriate or fair anything that will be fair to all schools," said Betsy Combier, a parent activist with four daughters in the New York City schools. "They should look into the culture of the schools they're dealing with and then come out with a list."
Others contend that because the education department used a formula ensuring that high-poverty schools made the list, officials sent the unfortunate message that disadvantaged students aren't expected to achieve as much as others.
"When you start gearing standards to demographics, you're going down a very dangerous path," said Joseph P. Viteritti, a research professor of public policy at New York University. "It's politicizing it, so we're going to have different expectations for students based on race and class."
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, announced in January that they had chosen reading, math, and writing curricula that schools would use throughout the 1.1 million-student district.
For reading, the city chose a phonics reading program that will be used in conjunction with classroom libraries. Elementary students will spend at least 90 minutes a day on reading and writing tasks.
In mathematics, the city's elementary schools will use Everyday Mathematics, a curriculum that integrates conceptual understanding and basic skills. The middle schools will teach from a companion curriculum from Everyday Mathematics, and high schools will learn from textbooks tailored to meet the state's regents exam.
The new programs are part of the administration's larger plan to centralize the school bureaucracy, reduce class sizes, and provide new services in schools. ("Mayor Outlines Major Overhaul of N.Y.C. System," Jan. 22, 2003.)
When Mr. Klein announced new citywide instructional programs, he said the city's highest-performing schools would be allowed to opt out.
"Schools exempted from the new curriculum have shown they are doing work that is achieving results," Mr. Klein said in a statement when he unveiled the 208 schools on the honor roll.
But the publication of the list Feb. 14 has produced a flood of complaints from parents and advocates that the methods used were arbitrary and do not reflect the quality of schools.
Some of the city's well-known and high-achieving schools are on the list, such as Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. The former Community School District 2, which served many of Manhattan's toniest neighborhoods, had 23 elementary and middle schools in the 200 Club-more than any of the other community districts that were abolished in the centralization plan.
At the same time, some of the city's best schools didn't make the list, while several lesser ones did, according to Clara Hemphill, the director of insideschools.org, a free online guide to New York schools.
To select members of the 200 Club, the district divided schools into three levels of need, using factors such as special education enrollment, subsidized-lunch participation, and percentage of English-language learners.
Mr. Klein chose schools from each category based on reading and math scores on the 2002 school system exams. Two-thirds of those selected are from low-need schools, 19 percent fall into the middle category, and 15 percent are part of the highest- need grouping, according to David Chai, a spokesman for the city education department.
Selecting schools from each category of need guaranteed that the list included schools from some of the city's poorest areas, as well as some from the wealthiest.
It would have created a bigger political problem if only schools serving white children from affluent areas were on the list, according to Ms. Hemphill. Still, it's been difficult for the education department to explain why a school was left off even though it recorded higher test scores than some schools that made the list.
What's more, the education department didn't do a thorough job of reviewing what is happening in the schools, Ms. Hemphill said. For example, she said, one Queens school with a gifted and talented program is on the list because the gifted students' test scores boosted the elementary's average.
"Children not in the gifted program are getting a really mediocre education," she charged.
Mr. Viteritti argues that the city's education department shouldn't have established a list in the first place.
"It should either be one program for everyone or you should choose a variety of programs" for principals to select from, he said. "If it's a really good curriculum, there's no reason to exempt anyone."
Mr. Klein has compounded the problem, Mr. Viteritti added, by allowing schools to obtain waivers from using the citywide curriculum. That gives schools that have vocal parents with political connections the inside track in lobbying the system, he maintained.