We experienced this failure firsthand, both as students attending segregated schools and as activists committed to building a better future for Black and Brown communities.
The experience, though difficult, taught us a few key lessons.
The problem is systemic
Welcome to New York City’s great catfish: an “open choice” school system in which students can apply to any high school in the city, regardless of where they reside. The idea sounds strong in theory, but in practice? In New York City public schools, 74.6% of Black and Latinx students attend a school with less than 10% white students. In fact, some of New York’s “best schools” are less Black than the populations of states like Idaho.
There are many policy failures at play here, but chief among them is the fact that New York City is home to some of the most competitive admissions screening programs in the country. Academic screens are the criteria that schools use to determine admittance, such as a student’s state test scores, grades, attendance, auditions, interviews, or portfolios. With little oversight, supposedly public schools are able to curate their student body, weeding out those whom they deem unfit. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt High School (ranked among the top 20 schools in New York State) gives priority admissions to students who reside on the Upper East Side, one of the city’s wealthiest districts, so it is no surprise that 3% of their student body is Black.
We can also look to New York City’s coveted specialized high-school system: a combination of eight schools whose sole admission criteria is a single test, along with LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, which admits students through auditions. It is the only system in the entire country that uses a single test for admission, and the results have been dire: In 2019, the city’s most selective high school admitted just seven Black students out of 895 spots.
Reminder: These are public schools, but the process favors students who have high grades and state test scores, with families who have the time and resources to invest in navigating complex admissions criteria. Of the 30 most academically selective high schools, 27 are majority white and Asian in a broader public school system that’s less than one-third white and Asian. While many Asian students are not similarly situated to their white counterparts economically, none of these 30 schools approach the system average for economic need. Meanwhile, hundreds of unscreened schools are at least 85% Black or Hispanic and 85% low-income.