New York City's school system is the most segregated in the nation, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the city's specialized public high schools, where black and Latino students make up just 11% of the student body, compared to 68% citywide. At Stuyvesant High School, the most competitive of the bunch, just 1% of students admitted for the 2016-2017 school year were black, and across the schools, 54% of currently admitted students are Asian, while 27% are white. Now, the city is putting forth a $15 million plan that it hopes will increase diversity at these schools, primarily focusing on prep for and access to the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

At Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Brooklyn Latin School, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Staten Island Tech, and High School for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at the City College of New York, admissions are based solely on students' scores on the SHSAT. For years, the system's been criticized for offering an advantage to students who can afford test prep, and many have emphasized the need to overhaul the admissions system.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio was among those calling for change: he said that "the specialized high schools are the jewels in the crown of our school system, but they don’t reflect this city," and said that he would create a system "of multiple measures to actually understand who are the kids with the greatest potential—and they come from every zip code, every neighborhood—and that’s what our specialized schools will look like in the future." Today, de Blasio joined the Department of Education in championing its new, test-focused initiatives, none of which expand admissions criteria, and called them "an important step forward" in diversifying the schools.

"This is about equity and excellence for all of our high-performing middle school students, regardless of their zip code or background," said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. "We're going to increase diversity without lowering any standards; to the contrary, greater diversity will help all our students succeed."

The reforms are as follows:

  • Hiring new outreach specialists to target low-income, high-achieving students for the SHSAT and the DREAM and Discovery programs (the former prepares eligible students for the test, while the latter offers students falling just below the admissions cutoff score a second chance at qualifying through summer courses).

  • Running a fall pilot program to administer the SHSAT on a school day, to increase the number of test takers.

  • Offering middle school afterschool programs that prepare students for the SHSAT.

  • Expanding the DREAM program, which currently offers free SHSAT prep to 6th and 7th graders. This summer, the DOE will launch a program for 8th-grade students as well.

  • Expanding the Discovery program at Brooklyn Tech and opening a new Discovery program at the High School of American Studies, serving an additional 100 students this summer.

  • Requiring all specialized high schools to develop plans to promote welcoming school climates by identifying student ambassadors and alumni of color to reach out to students who have been accepted, with the hopes of improving yield.

Through those six initiatives, the city hopes it'll get more students from historically underrepresented groups both to apply and accept offers to the eight schools. They're partly the result of funding secured by representatives on the state level, who believe that expanding test prep programs for low-income students will level the playing field.

"I strongly believe that the tests to get into the specialized high schools should be preserved as is and continue to be an objective test," said Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is a graduate of Bronx Science and is one of the legislators who helped secure that state funding. "Having an objective test means that no one's going to get in because they had a political connection, no one's going to get in because their parents have a lot of money—no one's gonna get in for any reason other than merit...I guarantee you the day you eliminate an objective exam is the day people start calling my office to get their kids into Bronx Science, and that's not how it should be. It should be based solely on qualifications."

Still, Dinowitz said, there's an unmistakable demographic disparity in who's applying and being accepted to these schools, which he thinks can be rectified by expanded test prep and outreach. An ideal reform, he said, though it's not included in this package, would make the test opt-out, rather than opt-in, so that students would take it by default unless they explicitly didn't want to.

But others argue there can't be any meaningful change until the schools change their admissions policies to "something that is nondiscriminatory and fair to all students," as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said when it filed a complaint with the federal Education Department in 2012, alleging that the specialized high schools' single-test policy is racially discriminatory. In 2013, the fund urged de Blasio to change the schools' policies to have them consider metrics such as middle school grades, class rank, and scores on state-mandated exams, as well as SHSATs—but for now, it seems the test-only policy is here to stay.

"I was very fortunate that I went to Bronx Science, and I didn't take test prep classes, but nowadays you really have to stay on pace with people who do," Dinowitz said. "I wonder what things would have been like if I hadn't gone to Bronx Science. I would hate to see any kid who has that potential miss out on it."