A mutinous crowd of more than 350 Manhattan parents repeatedly jeered a top Department of Education official Monday night over a proposed admissions overhaul at the city’s elite high schools.
For the first time, the DOE dispatched a senior official — Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack — to one of its citywide presentations on a plan that aims to increase black and Latino enrollment at the primarily Asian and white schools by scrapping a single-test-score admission system.
Speaking at a meeting of Community Education Council 2, a parental advisory group in one of the city’s top-performing districts, Wallack characterized the single test as a needless educational barricade.
He said his department is trying “to find a way that is objective and transparent that gives us more information about a way a student has performed that we believe is better and fairer.”
He stressed that 50 percent of kids admitted to the city’s specialized high schools currently come from just 4 percent of middle schools — and that additional selection measures would detect a far wider spectrum of talented candidates.
But with his opening remarks finished at the Clinton School on East 15th Street, the shelling began.
More than 30 parents lined up to denounce the DOE’s proposal as racist, deluded, divisive and ultimately fueled by political rather than pedagogical calculations.
“It’s a political bill that’s being sold on dishonest, false and even racist messaging,” said a parent of two Stuyvesant HS students. “Our school is not segregated. It’s a loaded and racist term that they use. Shame on the mayor, the chancellor, and anyone at the DOE and any politician that engages in this kid of rhetoric.”
Several Asian speakers highlighted the outsized toll the new plan would exact on their community.
Asian kids — including Chinese, Korean, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani students — currently make up roughly 60 percent of the current population at the city’s eight specialized high schools.
At the most prestigious campuses such as Stuyvesant HS and Bronx Science, their numbers are higher.
“This proposal is nothing about education and all about division,” said objector Wai Wah Chin. “We are going to look at your race and say, ‘Oh, your parents cook the food, deliver it, they wash your clothes, but you can’t get in. Because we don’t like your race or national background.’ ”
Other speakers from District 2 — which extends from the Upper East Side to Tribeca — speculated that if instituted, the changes would foment classroom discord.
“If this proposal in enacted, we are going to increase the racism and prejudice of our kids in the specialized high schools,” said NYU sociology professor and District 2 parent Jonathan Haidt.
He argued that black and Latino students admitted through modified entrance requirements would inevitably become stigmatized – and suffer for it.
Other parents pushed back on City Hall’s framing of the dispute as a confrontation between wealthy parents who can afford test-preparation classes and less affluent demographics.
“My parents were immigrants,” said one speaker. “They were poor. They were illiterate. So the advantages we had were no advantages. We knew how to work, how to study. And through studying, we achieved.”
Others accused the DOE of purposefully using the specialized-school plan to divert attention from larger systemic failures at middle schools in primarily black and Latino areas.
“The administration is trying to find a cheap fix for a big problem,” one speaker argued.
But Wallack did find at least one ally in the crowd, a parent who voiced her support for the plan and demanded silence from several hecklers.
“New York City public schools are riddled with practices that favor some children and leave others out in the cold,” she said. “The [admissions test] as a single metric, is but a small example of the conditions of segregation that plague our school system. For all of us who have been thinking about what’s good for my kid, we need to start thinking about what good for our kids and our community as a whole.”
Wallack echoed those thoughts, asserting that kids who finished in the top tier of their class at all city middle schools were deserving — and qualified — for admission to top high schools.
“We are not finding a way to admit some of these talented students from other parts of New York City,” he said.
The new metrics — including class rank and state test scores — would “give us the best picture of the talent that is out there in the city and that can succeed at the specialized high schools.”
One parent, Sasha Rozenberg, asked the crowd for a show of hands of those who opposed the changes.
With nearly every arm in the auditorium extended behind him, Rozenberg turned to look at Wallack.
“Now a question for this administration,” he said. “What are you planning to do in the face of this overwhelming rejection of your proposal?”
But while District 2 parental opinion seemed near unanimous at the meeting, the CEC – a collection of district parents – was far more divided on the issue.
A vote on a resolution that called for the DOE to suspend support for the plan deadlocked at 5-5.
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