What to know about New York City’s school admissions changes

New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at a media availability on December 21.
New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at a media availability on December 21.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at a media availability on December 21.

What to know about New York City’s school admissions changes

They’re the most significant shift to desegregate schools since de Blasio took office.
December 21, 2020

Earlier this year, New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has made diversity at city schools a top priority, caught flack for saying “never waste a good crisis” regarding making big changes to the city’s school system. But it seems that Mayor Bill de Blasio listened.

De Blasio announced on Friday a monumental shift in how many city public middle schools and high schools accept students. He said that he would drop screening criteria for selective middle schools for the upcoming school year and eliminate geographic preference for admission at high schools. That change is meant to increase diversity at the city’s top public schools and help to desegregate one of the most segregated school systems in the entire country.

Advocates for increasing diversity in schools have been calling for such changes for years, including Carranza, who has vocally opposed screened schools. De Blasio finally took action in response to the disruptions that the COVID-19 pandemic caused to schooling and testing. But they may have far reaching implications well beyond the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about the changes.

What exactly are the changes that de Blasio made?

About 200 middle schools – 40% of all public middle schools in the city – accept students through a screening process, based on a variety of criteria including grades, standardized test scores, student interviews and attendance. They tend to be the highest performing schools and often located in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. Black, Latino and low-income students also tend to be very underrepresented at these schools. Under the shift, these schools will not be allowed to screen students. Instead they will select students through a lottery system, the same as other non-screened schools. Students will rank their top schools on their middle school applications as they always have, including traditionally screened schools. High schools screening processes will remain in place, although schools Chancellor Richard Carranza encouraged screened high schools to consider voluntarily dropping the screens.

About 250 high schools will also no longer give geographic admissions preference to students. Preference by district will get eliminated for the upcoming school year, with preference for borough residents going the next year. These schools would treat admissions the same as all other public high schools in the city, which are open to all students regardless of where they’re from and have no geographic preference. Manhattan’s District 2, encompassing affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Tribeca, is one of the most egregious examples of this special carve out. It has some of the best and most selective public high schools in the city, and six of those high schools give priority to students living in the district. That means that high-performing students of color from other neighborhoods are less likely to get in, even if they meet the screening criteria. Middle schools that offer district priority in admissions will be allowed to continue to offer that.

Is this permanent?

The elimination of screens for middles schools has only been announced for one year with the understanding that the pandemic interfered with standardized tests that are often used in admission criteria, and the fact that the city did away with the traditional grading system to accommodate students who may be struggling during the pandemic or falling behind due to the massive upheavals in schooling. The de Blasio administration will evaluate the admissions process for the 2021-2022 school year, and there’s no guarantee that screenings will be eliminated for the 2022-2023 school year. 

The elimination of district preference for high schools, however, is permanent. The announcement came the same week that principals at Manhattan’s District 2 high schools called on the city to diversify the district by doing away with the geographic prioritization that keeps some of the city’s best public schools disproportionately white. 

Do these changes impact the city’s specialized public high schools?

Admissions at the city’s nine specialized high schools will remain unchanged. Students will still need to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is still the sole determinant of if students are accepted, for eight of the schools and follow the performance or portfolio submission process for LaGuardia High School. The criteria for these schools, despite being New York City public schools, are set by the state, so only the state Legislature can implement any changes. However, the changes to admissions criteria that de Blasio enacted affect far more schools, some of which are even less representative of the city’s population than the specialized high schools, or more skewed towards the wealthy, as the specialized high schools have large percentages of low-income Asian American students, who are not well-represented in many other screened schools.

Has this been done before?

In 2018, District 15 in Brooklyn changed its admissions process for middle schools, eliminating the screening process and shifting to a lottery system that gave extra weight to students who are low-income and homeless students, as well as those learning English as a second language. The goal of the change was to decrease segregation within the district itself, which includes affluent enclaves like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens as well as working-class and mostly immigrant communities like Sunset Park and Red Hook. Within a year, the diversity plan was already showing results, with the whitest and richest schools in the district showing some of the most dramatic shifts in enrollment. De Blasio’s new announcement expands what that one district did to the entire school system for at least one year, although without the extra weight for underserved students in the lottery system. Any middle schools that already have diversity plans in place to help prioritize underserved students for admissions at middle schools, like District 1 on the Lower East Side and District 3 on the Upper West Side, will keep those plans in place.

Why does this matter?

De Blasio has long been criticized for slow walking action on integrating the city’s school system. When in 2018 he first called for the elimination of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, he received criticism for targeting low-income Asian-American students, many of whom attend those schools, and for focusing on the eight schools that he doesn’t have the power to change, instead of the far greater number that he does control. De Blasio convened a task force with the aim of creating a plan to desegregate city public schools. In 2019, it released its final report, which included recommendations like eliminating screened schools. Last month, public school students filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the city of discriminating against Black and Latino students with screening processes for the city’s top public schools. It seems that the pandemic finally pushed de Blasio to take action after years of activism by student leaders and integration advocates, leading to the biggest shakeup of the city’s school admissions process in years. Those who have pushed for these kinds of changes applauded de Blasio’s announcement, even as they say that the city must do more to eliminate segregation that has long plagued city schools, create a more equitable school system and address the root problems that have created academic disparities between Black and Latino students and their white counterparts.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.
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