Educating About Education

Tens of thousands of New York City's eighth graders are gearing up to take the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) this Saturday. The results of this one test can earn a seat at one of NYC's esteemed specialized high schools.

And just as sure as students are prepping for the exam, others are calling for a reevaluation of the admissions system. A system that has been in place for decades and has helped maintain a legacy of rigorous study and academic excellence.

This past Tuesday night, as PTA co-president, I attended Brooklyn Tech's open house for prospective students. Well over 3,000 people attended - I spoke with countless excited, nervous, overwhelmed kids and their families gearing up for the SHSAT this coming weekend. I also spoke with families who didn't know you needed to take a test to get into Tech. Some parents did not know how to register for the test, even though it's taking place in a matter of days. Others were unaware of the test's content and format.

It became clear to me that there's a missing piece in this complicated high school process puzzle, one that could be a window into why there are underrepresented minorities in specialized high schools. If not all families know about the SHSAT or even what the specialized schools are, how can we expect their kids to perform well on the exam and earn seats? In some communities, the SHSAT and test prep are common knowledge. Currently Asian-American students hold more than half the seats at specialized high schools. Their families, many living at or below the poverty level, know about the SHSAT and make sure their kids are prepared - these kids often start test prep well before middle school. But, in talking with families last night, it was apparent this isn't the case throughout the city.

Before trying to eradicate the SHSAT and dismantle the current admissions system to specialized high schools, a better, and simpler, plan of action might be educating all NYC families, in all communities, about all their high school options.

NYC guidance counselors and parent coordinators should have current and concrete information about the high school process, with systematic support in how to get that information out to families and communities in both elementary and middle schools.

Test prep should be made available to more students. The mayor just rolled out a new initiative to increase support in underserved and renewal schools. Last year he was exceedingly vocal about making specialized high schools available to more students. Perhaps an emphasis on high school readiness, plus in-school test prep programs should be included in his list of priorities.

All high school juniors and seniors take a PSAT, to help kids prepare for the SATs. A practice SHSAT could be given to all seventh graders with information sent home to every family about what the test is about, what the specialized high schools are, and how kids can prepare for the exam.

Information should be made available about the SHSAT and specialized schools through a variety of platforms. Not all NYC families have computers and can check websites or receive emails. The high school and specialized high school handbooks given to students at the end of seventh grade are thorough but daunting. A one-page flier, translated into a multitude of languages, with simple explanations and plans of action could be shared with every NYC family well before the end of seventh grade.

None of these ideas are new or revolutionary. Earlier this year Larry Cary, the President of Brooklyn Tech's Alumni Foundation, outlined these ideas and more. Getting timely information to each and every family, so all are aware of educational options, should be standard practice.

Instead of filing lawsuits, hosting City Council hearings, lobbying in Albany, and fighting to change the current system, perhaps the DOE, the UFT, the NAACP, elected officials, schools administrations, and the city should work together to better educate its families about educational options. And through that, demographics could shift and more NYC students would have opportunities for extraordinary educations.