Giving Kids Choices

This week high school offer letters will be going home to tens of thousands of NYC eighth graders, who participated in the public school process.

There will inevitably be an uproar about the lack of diversity at specialized high schools. Diversity though isn't quite the right word -- many of the schools have diverse populations. The real issue is the lack of significant numbers of Black and Latino students at these eight test-in schools, admission to which is based solely on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT).

And the argument will resurface that the test is racist, that the admissions method (a purely objective one) is unfair, and that one or both need to change in order to shake up current demographics. In spite of recent research showing a more holistic admissions process won't make much of a difference, the racism charge will be back in the news.

As the parent of two kids at a specialized high school and PTA co-president at Brooklyn Tech, plus someone who's helped dozens of families navigate the high school process over the past couple of years, I have some advice for the DOE that could make a constructive difference going forward.

Communicate
Let every single seventh (even sixth grade) family know about the specialized high schools -- what they are, what they offer, how seats are awarded -- early enough so students can prepare. It's a hard test, with info not covered in school. Kids need plenty of time to study and prep.

Outreach
Have a direct line of communication from the DOE to parents with SHSAT specific and general high school information. Send emails. Create videos. Translate. For families without computer access who don't check websites or get email find other ways to get the message out. Provide written materials. Mail info. Send fliers home with kids, asking parents to sign and return. Make robo calls. Engage teachers and administrators to support sharing your messages. Send people to speak at elementary and middle school PTA and community meetings. Host more high school information sessions citywide in a variety of locations.

Streamline
Establish what needs to be shared and insist on buy in. Every child in every school should be getting information. The same information. In a timely and organized fashion. And hold administrations and guidance accountable for making sure families are informed.

Prepare
Provide test prep, for free, for all those interested.

Innovate
Have every 8th grader take the SHSAT. This way every child has an opportunity to earn a seat. And perhaps create a PSHSAT for 7th graders, along the lines of the PSAT. Give it in school to every single kid so they know what to expect and how they can prepare.

Take Responsibility
It shouldn't fall to the specialized high schools themselves to solicit prospective students. The schools themselves have no choice in who gets offered seats. Support help for kids on the cusp. Fund summer programs and build outreach time and materials into budgets.

Educate
Not all kids are leaving their elementary and middle schools having learned and mastered what they should. Universal pre K is a great start. But in order for kids to succeed in specialized high schools, they've got to have solid fundamentals under their belts.

Expectations
Specialized high schools are not for everyone. They are rigorous and demanding with challenging academic goals for each and every student and those not always the best fit for everyone.

Celebrate
28,000 or so students take the SHSAT. Close to 5,300 earns seats. They deserve a massive shout out for their hard work and accomplishments.

Support
Within Fair Student Funding, each specialized school should be getting a weighted amount in their budgets per student. Not all specialized high schools are being funded equally. When a student earns one of those coveted seats, they should expect funding equal to their specialized counterparts.

Yes, every child in the city deserves the opportunity to vie for a specialized high school seat. No, these schools aren't appropriate for all. But, at the end of the day, the job of the DOE, of schools, of parents, of communities, is to make sure every one of them has the chance.