September 28, 2012
Standing on stage at New York University’s Skirball Center this morning, six-time NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire warned the room full of students that their chances of becoming a professional basketball player were slim.
“What is your second option?” said Stoudemire. “What is your plan B?”
Reading was a good start to figuring out the answer to that question, he said. Stoudemire, promoting his new young adult book for middle school students, was speaking to Learning Leaders, a group that trains volunteer tutors and parents and deploys them into schools for support.
There is another elite pool with similarly daunting odds that faces students here in New York City. Black and Hispanic students make up 70 percent of the city’s student population, but they represent just 12 percent of students at the city’s eight specialized high schools, and the proportion of students of color at the most elite of the schools is even lower.
The disparity is at the center of a federal civil rights complaint that was filed this week charging that the schools’ entrance exam is fundamentally unfair.
After the event, Stoudemire said he wasn’t familiar with the issue and declined to comment. But there were plenty of parents and Learning Leaders who were familiar with the imbalance.
Executive Director Jane Heaphy said that real high school choice is hard to come by for many families that her group works with. She said it is easy to feel stymied by a lack of resources that is often necessary for one-on-one tutoring and prep courses.
“Can you make it without those things? Yes,” Heaphy said. “Is it a lot harder? Yeah, and those things help. That’s a real equity issue.”
Jessica Nathaniel, a grandmother who said her granddaughter was hoping to get placed in a selective high school or, ideally, a scholarship to a private boarding or Catholic school. But Nathaniel, who is black, said the 6 percent acceptance rate for black and Hispanic students was troubling.
“It needs to open up so that more of our children of color can get into these high-performing schools because some of them are very discouraged,” Nathaniel said. “They’re told that they can’t apply or that they don’t have the grades. I think there should be more of an opportunity for them.”
Chancellor Dennis Walcott appeared with Stoudemire briefly, but he had to leave early to attend an event to announce the expansion of a public library program in schools. Walcott said at that event that he disagreed with the criticism about the schools’ admissions policies.
“I really am fine with the standards,” Walcott said.
Walcott also said his hands were tied by state law, which required specialized schools to limit entry criteria to a standardized test. The group that filed the civil rights complaint, NAACP LDF, says the law applies only to the three schools that were open in 1972, not to the five schools the Bloomberg administration opened and designated as specialized.
“The reality is we do have a state law that’s been in place since 1972, so we need to put that out there very clearly,” Walcott said. “Were following the state law.”
Legislation by state Assemblyman Karim Camara has been proposed that would add more assessments to the admissions process, but Walcott declined to respond to the legislations. Instead he touted the city’s own efforts to attract more low-income students to prepare for and take the admissions test. Known as the DREAM initiative, the city is working with 2,600 low-income middle school students to prepare for the admissions test. Eighth graders participating in the program will take the test next month.