Posted on June 4, 2019

How New York’s Elite Public Schools Lost Their Black and Hispanic Students

Eliza Shapiro and K.K. Rebecca Lai, New York Times, June 3, 2019


In interviews, more than a dozen black and Hispanic students who graduated from New York City’s specialized high schools from 1975 to 1995 described the schools as oases for smart children from troubled neighborhoods. But the alumni said they were anguished that the schools have since lost nearly all of their black and Hispanic students.

White enrollment has also fallen while Asian enrollment has ballooned. Among the most drastic shifts: Brooklyn Technical High School’s black population dropped to 6 percent in 2016 from 51 percent in 1982.

The city has designated five additional test-in specialized high schools since 2002, bringing the total to eight, in an attempt to integrate the elite schools. But even those schools have seen a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment over the last decade, which undercuts the idea that simply adding more elite schools will shift demographics. Black and Hispanic students currently represent 70 percent of the school system, but make up just 10 percent of the enrollment in the specialized schools.


For years, most who took the admissions test had little to no preparation. Today, test prep is a rapidly expanding local industry. At the same time, many accelerated academic programs in mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods have closed as Asian immigrants have embraced the specialized high schools as tickets out of poverty.

And in a school system that remains severely racially segregated, many black and Hispanic students have been left in struggling middle schools that sometimes do not even notify them that the elite schools exist.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to scrap the decades-old admissions test has sparked an intense backlash and a renewed fight over how to integrate the city’s deeply divided school system.

The mayor’s proposal would replace the exam — currently the sole means of gaining admission to the schools — with a system that offers seats to the top-performing students from every city middle school. If his plan is approved by the State Legislature — an increasingly dim possibility — the specialized schools would be nearly 50 percent black and Hispanic, and Asian students would lose about half their seats.

That would be a significant blow to the Asian students, most of them poor, who have replaced white students as a majority in the specialized schools. From 1970 to 2011, the number of Asia-born immigrants living in New York City increased about eightfold to 843,000 from 105,000. The Asian population of the specialized schools includes Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants.

Though immigration from Latin America and Africa has also increased significantly in the same period, that influx is not reflected in the specialized schools’ makeup. By 2011, New York was home to about 984,000 first-generation immigrants from Latin America and roughly 128,000 immigrants who were born in Africa.


Today, it is almost unheard-of for a current student to not have prepared for the test — often at one of the prep centers whose presence in New York City has doubled in the past decade, to 436 in 2017. At Kaplan, a top prep chain, the most basic offering for the specialized school exam is eight group prep sessions for $1,000.

The centers have cropped up to prep students for the SAT, the specialized school test and other high-stakes exams. Some even offer summer classes.


Last year, there were nearly twice as many students in gifted and talented programs in District 2 — which includes mostly wealthy and white Manhattan neighborhoods — as there were in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough. The Bronx has a total of nine gifted and talented programs, while District 2 alone has eight.

Some families believe that expanding gifted programs to every neighborhood will help integrate schools. Others argue that the programs exacerbate segregation.

Hundreds of charter schools have opened as gifted programs have closed, absorbing tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students into academically rigorous classrooms.

Though some charter students outperform their white suburban peers on state exams, that has not always translated into success on the specialized school test. Since charter students sometimes cannot afford prep or are not steered towards the specialized schools, charters’ track record on elite school admissions has raised questions about whether preparation specific to the entrance exam can outweigh academic prowess or performance on other standardized tests. Specialized school offers to charter students would more than double under Mr. de Blasio’s plan.

Prep for Prep, a training program that helps high-performing black, Hispanic and Asian students get into prestigious New York private schools, accepts only about 200 students a year. Some have argued that Prep for Prep recruits smart black and Hispanic students who might have otherwise attended a specialized school. But even if every Prep for Prep student were accepted into a specialized high school, they would still represent only a small fraction of the schools’ 5,000 or so offers for freshman seats.