‘We can do better’: Parents, educators and lawmakers vent at Kew Gardens hearing over specialized school tests

Photos by Carlotta Mohamed

The first forum discussion on the divisive issue regarding school diversity and the specialized high school admissions process held April 11 at Queens Borough Hall brought an angry crowd of parents protesting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to abolish the exam.

Inside Queens Borough Hall, members of the state Senate Committee on New York City Education — state Senators John Liu, Kevin Parker, Toby Stavisky and Velmanette Montgomery — listened to over three hours of testimony from community members who shared their thoughts, concerns and ideas arguing that the current single test used to determine admissions into the elite schools should remain in place.

The senators were also joined by Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman and Councilman Peter Koo.

Liu, chair of the Senate’s NYC Education Committee, said there is an issue of diversity in specialized high schools and it needs to be addressed head on.

“We’re going to face this issue not by throwing out a plan and asking people to comment on it; we want everyone who has an opinion about this to tell us what you think the problem is. This is what hearing the community is all about,” said Liu.

Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS


According to Liu, the city’s proposal to diminish the SHSAT exam excluded many parts of the city — in particular the Asian community, describing de Blasio’s plan as “racist.”

“They kind of knew what the input would be from the Asian American community, so they excluded that point of view — not inadvertently, but intentionally and deliberately,” said Liu. 

Many argued that the test is an unbiased measure and called admissions changes discriminatory against Asian students, who make up the majority of enrollment at the specialized high schools — despite making just 16 percent of public school enrollment citywide. 

David Lee, Brooklyn Technical High School alum.

“Taking away the test will marginalize opportunities for thousands of students, mostly low-income and immigrants, and also mostly Asian students,” said David Lee, a Brooklyn Technical High School alum, who has been working with the Asian community advocating for keeping the SHSAT test. “Testing is essential for many careers, for example the Civil Service Exam in New York City. Furthermore, let’s create more schools, create more seats, and let’s fix the crisis in K-to-eight schools, in particular for African American and Latino students.”

Some speakers called for restoration of the gifted and talented programs in black and Hispanic communities to better prepare a more diverse group of students for admission to the schools, and for more specialized high schools to be built.

“If you take a look at Queens, we have one specialized high school, every year 125 students. Queens is the second largest borough with 2.5 million residents … that’s one seat for every 18,000 graduates. We can do better than that,” said Horace Davis, president of the Caribbean American Society of New York and a Brooklyn Technical High School alum. “Just imagine what we can do with more programs and more seats in communities that serve the black and Hispanic communities.”

According to reports, among the 4,798 students who received an offer to one of the city’s specialized high schools based on their exam score, only 506 black and Hispanic students received offers to schools, including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School.

At Stuyvesant High School, of the 895 students admitted, only seven students were black.

Parents and former alums of the eight specialized high schools stressed anger and frustration toward Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who made a statement saying that those who weren’t on board with the elimination of the test were racist.

Charles Vavruska

“I was very upset. Chancellor Carranza called me a racist,” said Charles Vavruska. “He called all of us a racist. As soon as he got here, he tweeted, ‘Angry white parents.’ Then he said, ‘Asians-only admissions system.’ There are so many things we can do to improve education. We don’t need to do this political scheme and keep racial division going.’”

Many also argued the city’s proposed admissions changes have pitted communities against each other.

“There is so much vilification of Asian parents who are fighting to help their children,” said Jo Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation.“We must give all of our kids access to the best education possible.”

The event was the first in a series of planned citywide forums for state senators to facilitate an inclusive dialogue with all community stakeholders in the city’s public schools. According to Liu, there will be an announcement of upcoming forums in each borough for constituents to state their opinions on the matter.

“We are united in the idea that we want to hear what people have to say,” said Stavisky. “We don’t want to present a plan and say, ‘That’s it’ without hearing the community’s input.”