Specialized High School Reform Proposal Triggers Outcry

Peter Koo, third from left speaking into the mic, and other attendees at the rally June 5 protesting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal regarding specialized high schools. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The specialized high school reform proposal that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday triggered an outcry in the Chinese community. Hundreds of Chinese, as well as people from other communities who support the current test-based admission policy, gathered near City Hall on June 5 to protest. Participants say the mayor’s plan would destroy the specialized high school system which is based on rigorous academic instruction. Many academically competitive children would lose the opportunity to receive an education that fits their needs. And many Chinese families may leave New York to seek better educational options for their children.

According to the mayor’s plan, the city would take two steps to complete the reform. First, it would expand the current “Discovery” program which allows students from low-income districts who don’t meet the cutoff score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to get into the schools by taking summer courses. In addition, it would reduce the seats distributed based only on SHSAT scores.

The reform, should New York State give it the green light, would start in 2019 and take three years to completely eliminate the use of the SHSAT. [Editor’s note: While the bill passed the NYS Assembly Education Committee on June 6, comments from Gov. Cuomo suggest that the issue may ultimately become part of a larger discussion of mayoral control over the schools in 2019.]

By the end of the three-year phase-in, the top 7 percent of graduating students at every middle school, based on average academic performance, would be guaranteed a seat in one of the eight specialized high schools that now admit students based exclusively on their SHSAT scores.

The protest, organized by the Coalition of Asian Americans for Civil Rights, attracted participants from elected officials and community activists to students and parents. They chanted “Keep the test” and “Kill the bill” and marched on the streets near City Hall.

Wai Wah Chin, founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, whose child is a Stuyvesant High School graduate, said many Chinese immigrants heard about the specialized high schools in New York while they were still in China, and they came here in order to send their children to the schools. If the quality of specialized high schools is diluted, there won’t be any more such academically challenging public schools in New York. And many Chinese families may leave New York because of this.

Huan Min, a parent whose daughter just graduated from Stuyvesant, said the SHSAT selects students who are ready to take rigorous courses and offer them the right amount of challenges. “If the SHSAT is abandoned, students admitted into such schools may not all be ready for the courses there. And some courses may no longer be offered as they are now. Then specialized high schools wouldn’t be ‘special’ anymore,” said Min.

Ivan Khan, an alumnus of the Bronx High School of Science who now runs a cram school to help students prepare for the SHSAT, said that although the majority of specialized high school students are Asian, and many of them go to cram schools, they are not “elites” as the mayor believes.

“Many of them are from the working class. The parents work hard to pay the $10 to $15 per hour tuition for their children in order to get them a quality education,” said Khan. “The only reason the mayor attacks Asians is because we don’t vote.”

Tahseen Chowdhury, a Stuyvesant senior who ran for State Senate earlier this year, said the mayor’s announcement of his plan on Sunday, three days before the Education Committee was scheduled to vote on a bill that would clear the path for the plan, is unfair. “No hearing was held for the bill, and there isn’t enough time for the public to react,” said Chowdhury.

Many Fujianese immigrants also attended the protest. Zikuo Zhang, whose grandson just graduated from the Bronx High School of Science last year and is now a student at Cooper Union, said many Fujianese experienced great hardship to come to the U.S. in order to offer their children a better education. And these young people, after graduation, went on to become contributors to society. “Why is the U.S. the most powerful country in the world? Isn’t it because it offers the best education to the most talented people from around the world?” Zhang said.

Keith Cheng, who represents the Fujian Consolidated Benevolent Association, said the Chinese may be a silent group on many issues, but they won’t compromise on education.

City Council member Peter Koo and representatives of State Assembly members Toby Ann Stavisky, Peter Abbate Jr. and state Sen. Jesse Hamilton were also present at the protest rally.

John Chan, president of the Coalition of Asian Americans for Civil Rights, which organized the protest, said no matter the outcome of the Assembly committee vote, opponents will gather again on Sunday afternoon, June 10, at City Hall for an even bigger rally. “Even if the bill fails this time, the mayor has said he will try again. So we won’t stop until he stops,” Chan said.

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  1. Pingback: – Tony Avella and John Liu Fight Over Chinese Voters

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