New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

New York Daily News How the coronavirus is exacerbating the education opportunity gap by Kirsten John Foy, Tai Abrams

How the coronavirus is exacerbating the education opportunity gap

As students, parents and teachers across New York City have had to adjust to remote learning as never before, there is a palpable sense of anxiety over whether students are being given the best opportunity for success under the current circumstances.

Particularly for low-income students and those who do not have access to technology or reliable wi-fi, remote learning can be a significant challenge. Given the historic inequities in our public school system and with likely school closures for the rest of the year sure to cause major academic disruptions, now is the time for the city to enact systemic changes to ensure disadvantaged students do not fall even further behind.

One area that requires specific attention is the city’s specialized high schools. These elite institutions can provide an answer to the setbacks many students face this academic year. But they also remain out of reach for many students of color.

We’ve heard the de Blasio administration say that the best long-term way to increase diversity in NYC’s specialized high schools is by entirely eliminating the entrance exam known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

But students tutored by the Education Equity Campaign (EEC) during this admissions cycle proved that theory to be flawed. There is indeed another way to help students achieve educational success: comprehensive tutoring prep that focuses on raising skill level and increasing students’ confidence.

As two people of color who graduated from specialized high schools, we have dedicated our careers to social justice and education.

We believed the mayor’s original approach did little to actually help our children meet the standards for which they are capable. That’s why, alongside EEC founders Ronald S. Lauder and Richard Parsons, we embarked on a pilot program to offer free test prep to prepare disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have access to the extracurricular support necessary for success on the SHSAT.

The results speak for themselves.

This year, 12,422 Black and Latino students sat for the SHSAT. Of those, 470, or 3.8% were offered admission. In contrast, of the 197 students enrolled in EEC’s 7-week programs, 31 were accepted into a specialized high school. That’s 15.7%. Put another way. students of color in EEC programs were more than four times more likely to secure admission than their peers citywide.

And the EEC program only ran for seven weeks. If 31 students were able to achieve success after only a seven-week program, imagine the results if the city directed this support to more students of color.

Let’s be clear. Much more needs to be done. The demographic diversity of students offered acceptances this year is consistent with the dismal numbers of years past. It’s unacceptable that African American students made up only 4.5% of the total acceptances offered and Latino students received 6.6% of the acceptance pool for next year.

However, systemic problems require systemic solutions. That is why we are continuing our advocacy campaign by supporting a coalition of city and state lawmakers who are introducing legislation to bring programs like EEC’s to scale so that all students have access to the best educational opportunities.

For instance, state Sen. Leroy Comrie is sponsoring a bill that would create 10 new specialized high schools to remedy the fact that there are now only 15,000 spots available for 360,000 high school students. The bill would also establish a pipeline for success by expanding gifted and talented programs in communities so that students have access to quality education from the moment they enter the public-school system.

Complementing the state effort, we have also partnered with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and City Councilmen Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy to require the Department of Education to come up with a plan to provide every middle school student with free test preparation and to automatically enroll students in the SHSAT.

Now that daily learning has moved from classrooms to living rooms, many parents have had to take a more hands-on approach to support their children. This experience shows the value of both supplemental education and of continuing to work beyond the school day.

It’s more important than ever that the city create a plan to help students achieve their highest potential. This starts with expanding gifted and talented programs, offering universal test prep to all rising high school students, and increasing the number of seats at specialized high schools so that all of our students have access to a quality education.

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