Two hundred and fifty rising ninth graders spent the summer in classrooms solving math problems, receiving English instruction and getting advice on how to handle a high-pressure high school.
This is the Discovery Program, for students whose scores on the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test fall just short of the cutoff to get into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or any of the city's other elite public high schools.
Nearly all who complete the Discovery Program move on to one of those top schools.
Discovery was “like a second chance for me,” says Samuel Cole, who attended the program at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering in Manhattan.
Sean Dolcy, an assistant principal who runs one of the program at the High School of Math, Science and Engineering says Discovery students do just as well at the elite high schools as students admitted through the test.
“It is sort of just a made up idea that … ‘Oh, the Discovery kids. They must not do well,’” he said.
Discovery was created to increase the diversity of the elite high schools, which are overwhelmingly Asian or White.
Mayor de Blasio plans to expand it to 800 students from 250, a cornerstone of his drive to get more black and Hispanic students into the top schools.
But according to data obtained by NY1, the Discovery program is not diverse, either.
Asian students received 52 percent of the admissions offers to the elite schools this year, but they made up 64 percent of the Discovery Program. Another 11percent of Discovery students were white.
The de Blasio administration admits the criteria for picking students for the Discovery Program should be overhauled.
State law requires that the program serve "disadvantaged" students. The city has said students receiving for free or reduced-price lunches qualify as “disadvantaged.’ But that classification includes covers Asian students from immigrant families
Starting next summer, Discovery will only take kids from schools where at least 60 percent of the students are from high-poverty families. Those schools are largely black and Hispanic.
Still, even the mayor admits that changing the Discovery Program can boost black and Hispanic enrollment in the elite high schools by a few percentage points, at best.
He says real change requires overhauling the high school admissions process. That requires a new state law, a tough sell in Albany.
WHAT IS THE SPECIALIZED HIGH SCHOOL ADMISSIONS TEST?
Students in eighth or ninth grade who want to apply to one of the city's eight specialized high schools — Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, High School for American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for Sciences at York College, Staten Island Technical High School, and Stuyvesant High School — must take the exam.
The 180-minute test scores potential students based on English Language Arts and math. Test-takers are then ranked based on their scores for the number of questions they answer correctly. If admitted, the student is assigned to a specialized high school based on how he or she ranked the school on the application, the priority the student assigned to the school, and the seats available.
Tens of thousands of students apply to the schools every year for 5,000 seats.
HOW IS THE CITY TRYING TO CHANGE ADMISSIONS POLICIES?
The city is advocating for legislation to require the schools to move toward a system that ensures the top seven percent of students from every middle school in the city gets a spot at a specialized high school. More immediately, the city is taking action on its own by expanding the Discovery Program.
"Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won't be blocked from a great educational opportunity," the mayor wrote in an op-ed published in June in the education website Chalkbeat.
The specialized high schools rely solely on SHSAT to admit students every year. The cut-off for admissions varies from school to school.
De Blasio has always said that, philosophically, he has been opposed to the way the specialized high schools chose their students, but this the first time the mayor has presented an actual plan to scrap SHSAT.
The mayor called the exam flawed and pointed to socioeconomic barriers — such as families not being able to afford tutors or test preparation courses — putting students from poorer families at a disadvantage in their efforts to be admitted to the specialized schools.
De Blasio said he's pushing the change now, in part, because he is expecting Democrats to win control of the New York state Senate in November.
THE ISSUE OF SEGREGATION
Using students' middle school rankings as the basis for admissions would allow more students across the city to be represented — more than half of the students that are admitted to the specialized schools come from just 21 middle schools.
Nearly 70 percent of public school students in the city are black and Latino, but just ten percent gain access to the city's top high schools.
Stuyvesant High School, for example, is welcoming 900 new freshmen in September; just 10 of those students will be black.
But Asian students say his proposal would end up denying them admission.
Asian students make up about 16 percent of the school system, but about 52 percent of those accepted to the eight schools. At Stuyvesant, three out of four students are Asian.
State lawmakers have said in the past that they do not want to change the test. They have listened to alumni interest groups from the schools and have said that the exam is the fairest way to determine who should be admitted.
The powerful alumni groups from the specialized high schools have successfully lobbied for decades to keep SHSAT. Some have argued that opening up admissions at the specialized schools would weaken them.
De Blasio has said that argument is un-American.