Preserve academic rigor at Hunter and improve education for all NYC kids

Preserve academic rigor at Hunter and improve education for all NYC kids

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alexander rozenberg started this petition to New York City Council and

Dear Members of the City Council, Mayor De Blasio, Chancellor Matos Rodríguez, and President Raab

Hunter College High School (HCHS) is a selective school in New York City (NYC) that prides itself on providing a high-quality education to advanced learners. The Hunter College schools website states:

"Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School serve a diverse population of children who have been identified as intellectually talented. The curriculum at each school is characterized by high expectations and designed to facilitate the development of a student’s intellectual, critical and creative thinking skills."

HCHS’s mission statement makes it clear that the school is very demanding. It serves a unique and very important function in the ecosystem of NYC schools: it provides the necessary conditions for the development of talents of advanced learners in a coherent and autonomous educational program from the 7th through 12th grades. One may think about these exceptional children as having special educational needs: an intellectually stimulating environment is critical for their engagement and well-being. 

For many years, HCHS has used a school-specific test to admit new students. Broader and more difficult than the annual mandatory state-wide test, it is a measure of students’ ability to study and work hard, to retain knowledge, to think logically and creatively, and to express themselves clearly in the form of an essay. The test consists of three parts: English, mathematics, and an essay. It is not a narrow one-dimensional test, but a broad assessment of knowledge and creativity developed through consistent effort in elementary and middle schools. It is a good predictor of students’ readiness to do well in Hunter’s demanding environment.

Opponents of Hunter’s admissions test claim that it is biased. We believe that this critique is misguided. The success of Hunter’s graduates, who went on to become the leaders of the society in arts, sciences, law, journalism, and other civic endeavors, is ample proof that the admission process is doing the job it is supposed to do: selecting highly proficient learners who can thrive in the demanding and intellectually rigorous atmosphere of the school. 

We wholeheartedly support the effort to promote diversity of all sorts at the school: exposure to various life experiences and viewpoints enriches both the students and society. However, eliminating the test is not the correct solution. Test results are a symptom of a larger problem, and solutions lie elsewhere. Getting rid of the test is not going to help disadvantaged students and will hide the actual problem.

We recognize the importance of providing opportunities for talented youth from all backgrounds to receive the best education and allow their natural talents to flourish. As a society, we need to find a way to help those in need to overcome the initial lack of resources. The problem, however, has its roots much deeper than the admissions process to a few excellent high schools. The lack of equal opportunities in our society is a product of decades of government and private actions and should be addressed. 

We believe that there are constructive ways to help talented NYC students of diverse backgrounds to gain admission to HCHS without compromising the objectivity, quality, and rigor of the admissions process. A practical and immediately applicable approach may include:

(1) Disseminating information about the school early on and helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds to prepare for it. 

(2) Expanding the very popular Gifted and Talented programs starting in elementary school, particularly in the neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status. The recently introduced lottery for admissions into the G&T programs only demonstrates the desperate need for a greater number of such programs. Hunter’s experience does not need to be unique and its success can be replicated. This would have a much greater positive effect on the disadvantaged communities than altering the admissions process to high schools.  

(3) Allowing Hunter students to complete their 70 hours of community service by becoming school ambassadors and tutors to underprivileged kids as a part of an organized outreach effort. This will help them develop and practice civil responsibility while enabling all NYC children to gain access to a top-notch enrichment program.

(4) Helping middle school students in underprivileged schools with test preparation. As noted above, Hunter’s admissions test is instrumental for selecting children who would benefit from and thrive in the demanding intellectual milieu of the school. Building on a solid foundation acquired in elementary and middle schools, some additional preparation may contribute to bright kids' success in taking the test. 

These and other constructive approaches would encourage and help the extraordinary students across the city prepare for a high standard of education.

The red herring debate around high school admissions diverts the attention from our city’s failure to bring quality education to all students. Despite the fact that only 0.25% of the 6th graders are annually admitted into Hunter, its admission policy receives a higher share of public and politicians' interest, than the educational needs of the other 99.75%. The demands for “equity” in selective high schools will only delay the necessary hard work to increase access to quality education for most students.

The annually released New York State testing data paint an awful picture of disparity in students’ achievements. According to the data gathered by the Department of Education of NYC (available here), the proficiency levels in math of Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White ethnicity groups in grades 3-8 are respectively 74%, 28%, 33%, and 67%. The contrast in the results in English is almost as stark, with the above ethnic groups scoring at 68%, 35%, 36%, and 67%.

This data very clearly demonstrates that the problem of unequal educational outcomes starts long before students enter high schools. How can the racial composition of the selective high schools reflect that of the general population, when there is a vast disparity in proficiency rates in elementary and middle schools? The focus of the debate should be on improving failing schools and giving all students a chance to develop their talents, rather than admission policy to a few schools that are already doing a great job in educating children. 

As citizens of the great city of New York, we care deeply about its future. Together with its culture, energy, opportunities, and rich fabric of life, beacons of world-class education attract families from all over the world to New York. Hunter contributes essentially to New York City's cosmopolitan excellence - a unique virtue that the city must cultivate if it is to recover economically from the ravages of the COVID pandemic. We must preserve Hunter's tradition of excellence and its extraordinary contribution to New York City's future prosperity.

We urge Hunter’s administration to resist the loud calls to revamp the admissions process. Hunter should take the time to develop a thoughtful, nuanced approach, which can harmonize different priorities and withstand the test of time. Even more importantly, we urge all New Yorkers who care about the education of our children to continue the work to improve our city’s public education. We must develop solutions that meet the needs of all students.

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