Heckles and cheers were had at an education town hall hosted by the advocacy group Jackson Heights People for Public Schools on Saturday.
The town hall included education advocates, state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-East Elmhurst) and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Jackson Heights). State Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside) and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Jackson Heights) both made a brief appearance at the event on March 16 at the Fiesta Hall, 37-62 89th Ave.
The most heated matter that drew jeers from a small portion of the crowd was the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which became a heated topic of discussion among parents after Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed changing the requirements without any community input for eight elite schools that use the one exam to determine entrance to their institutions.
In 2018, the mayor proposed overhauling the admission process for the schools by using middle school class rank, standardized test scores and setting aside 20 percent of seats for low-income students who were just below the cutoff for the SHSAT, because black and Latino kids made up only 10 percent of the student body total among the elite institutions. He also suggested placing the top seven percent of middle school students in these schools.
“Tests do not level the playing field,” said Maria Bautista of Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition of community organizations that fight to ensure first-rate public school learning. “Fully funding public education levels the playing field.”
Bautista called the lack of resources for black and Latinos whether it’s for test prep for elite high schools or the overall funding of their local public school to be a racial justice issue.
Some parents that were in the audience started shouting as Bautista spoke and called the mayor’s quotas to accept other minority students to be a form of anti-Asian racism, and held up signs that said, “Equity: a code word for anti-Asian.”
Asian Americans made up nearly 52 percent of the student population within the eight elite high schools last year, according to education news site Chalkbeat.
Despite the jeers, Bautista did not want to dismiss the concerns of the parents.
“We want you to join us in the fight for making sure that all children in the state of New York get a sound basic education,” said Bautista. “I’m not for leaving anyone behind. I want you to hear me. I don’t want to leave anyone behind. When I’m fighting for children, I’m fighting for all children to have a quality education.”
Education activists Diane Ravitch of Network for Public Education, a grassroots group that works to strengthen public schools, and Kate Menken of New York State Initiative for Bilingual Education, a group that fights for bilingual education in public schools called out the SHSAT for also being gender-biased against girls and biased towards students who don’t speak English as a first language.
Ramos highlighted that few black and immigrant parents are even aware there is a test for these elite high schools and that the schools are not accessible for everyone because of distance.
“I took the specialized high school exam myself and I passed, then I came home and told my mom and dad I had passed this test they never heard of before. The minute I told them the specialized high school I wanted to go to wasn’t in Queens they squashed that right, right quick. I tell that story because most immigrant parents don’t understand there is that option for their children,” said Ramos.
There is only one specialized high school in Queens and Staten Island.
The eight elite schools include Bronx High School of Science, the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College in Manhattan, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, Staten Island Technical High School, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Latin School and the Brooklyn Technical High School, which Ocasio-Cortez’s father attended.
“My father was an exception to these statistics. My dad was born in the south Bronx when the Bronx was burning. He was raised with five people in a one bedroom apartment,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “He left his apartment at 5 a.m. to get on the six or four trains to ride a dangerous subway in the 70s at 15-years-old to go to Brooklyn Tech because it was seen as his only opportunity to have a dignified life. He loved his experience at Brooklyn Tech because he went to a good school. My question is why is there only a handful of schools like that? Why isn’t every school a Brooklyn Tech caliber school?”
Ocasio-Cortez said the real problem when it came to quality education was the “scarcity mindset.”
“I understand the concern,” said Ocasio-Cortez to the hecklers. “This should not be the fight. We are in this together. I’m fighting for your kids, and your kids,” she added to the rest of the crowd who erupted in applause.