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Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS
District 24 Superintendent Madeline Taub-Chan, CEC Co-President Dmytro Fedkowskyj and council member Jo Ann Berger debate the advisory group's resolution on the removal of SHSAT exams at the P.S. 199 Annex in Woodside on June 19.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he would seek to remove the Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT) sparked protests from parents and responses from politicians in Queens, and one local education advisory group recently joined the movement.

The Community Education Council 24 (CEC) — an advisory group to the Department of Education representing parents of School District 24 — voted on June 19 in favor of a resolution that calls upon Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, School Chancellor Richard Carranza and the New York State Legislature to vote against changing the admissions criteria for the city’s eight specialized high schools.

The mayor has proposed the removal of the SHSAT or a set-aside of 20 percent of the schools’ seats for low-income students who score just below the lowest cutoff score in hopes that it will increase the number of black and Hispanic students accepted to the schools.

After some minor debate and changes to the original text of the resolution, all but one member of the council voted in favor of it.

The proceedings began with a reading of the resolution by Henry Choi, vice president of the council, and it raised several questions from CEC member JoAnn Berger. Referring to data showing the number of students from District 24 that are taking the SHSAT and how many of them are getting attendance offers from the specialized schools, Berger said that she took issue with several paragraphs in the resolution.

“We are education advocates and I don’t believe we should ever deem a student as not having a realistic chance to succeed,” Berger said.

Her suggestion referred to a section stating that removing the SHSAT could lead to the admission of students that aren’t prepared for the curriculum of a specialized school and “may place them in a position where they do not have a realistic chance to succeed.” That phrase was removed from the resolution.

Berger also pointed out another paragraph stating that removing the SHSAT could lead to “the deterioration of the quality of the student body” in the specialized schools. That paragraph was removed as well.

“Each child, each student brings with them wherever they go a certain set of gifts and skills, so I don’t think that you should ever say that the students that enter in there will deteriorate the quality of the student body,” Berger said. “I completely disagree with that.”

When the council opened the floor to questions from the public, one audience member suggested that the vote on this resolution be delayed because the state Legislature has already said it will not vote on the mayor’s proposal until next year’s legislative session.

Charlie Vavruska, an education adviser for Councilman Robert Holden, then pleaded with the council to vote on the resolution immediately.

“The SHSAT does not ask you who your family is. It doesn’t ask you what your race is. It is completely determined by the child who takes the test,” Vavruska said. “We need to keep this test merit-based … I urge you to vote on this now. It’s necessary now because the chancellor and the mayor are trying to destroy these schools.”

In taking a stance against the mayor’s proposal, the resolution also suggested possible solutions to make the specialized high schools more diverse. The city should focus on improving the quality of education in its grade and middle schools across the city, as well as offer expanded and free SHSAT preparation courses that are accessible to all students, the resolution states.

While Berger out forth a motion to delay the council’s vote on the resolution, that motion was voted down.

After the resolution passed, Choi read a letter that he wrote to the mayor and chancellor about the SHSAT and specialized high schools in which he said that “there is something wrong” with the fact that so few black and Hispanic students are admitted to some of the schools, but the mayor’s plan is not the answer.

“It is our communal fault if we do not or will not help any child to have the intellectual curiosity and drive in attaining his or her best possible New York City public high school outcome,” Choi said. “We should be asking why there are so few children of African-American and Hispanic communities that are being properly prepared for rigorous high school work.”

Legislation put forth in the Assembly to change the specialized high school admission process did pass the Education Committee, but the legislative session ended on June 20 without a rush into a final vote on the bill.

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