Discovery Program Expansion Draws Backlash from Parents at Christa McAuliffe I.S.187

Parents from Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School recently proposed a lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio for discriminating against high-performing Asian Americans by expanding the Discovery Program.

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Every fall, 30,000 eighth graders take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to compete for a limited number of seats at New York City’s elite specialized high schools. Due to the disproportionately high number of Asian American students accepted into these schools, the SHSAT has been deemed a subject of controversy by the mayor, the Department of Education, and many parents. Mayor Bill de Blasio referred to the racial demographics of the specialized high schools as a “monumental injustice,” saying that “these high schools should look more like the city as a whole.”

In an attempt to diversify the student population across specialized high schools, de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently expanded the SHSAT Discovery Program, an initiative that allows low-income students who just miss the cutoff score on the SHSAT to earn admission into specialized high schools. Students from middle schools that score at least 60 percent on the City’s Economic Need Index, which measures the percentage of students in poverty, qualify for the program. These students attend summer classes and work with administrative staff and members of the Big Sib program to improve their emotional, social, and avocational skills. At the end of the program, students are offered admission to specialized high schools based on progress evaluations conducted by the various teachers and staff members of the school.

“The students [who] were accepted through the Discovery Program and through the SHSAT are achieving in similar levels academically in biology. In the end, they are Stuyvesant students. I had such a positive experience. The [classes] of students were relatively small in size so it was very laid back. Within the classes, we built glucose models, took notes, and even had presentations,” biology teacher Marianne Prabhu, who participated in the Discovery Program over the summer, said.

The expansion of the Discovery Program has allowed for an increase in diversity in many specialized schools. Previously, only five percent of seats in all specialized high schools were allotted to students in the Discovery Program. However, de Blasio’s press conference in October 2018 advocated for an increase in the number of seats to 20 percent for the 2019 admissions. The number of African American and Hispanic students who attend Stuyvesant has already increased from five percent to 10.4 percent for the graduating class of 2022 due to the introduction of the Discovery Program.

De Blasio’s end goal is to reform the admissions process so that only the top seven percent of students from every middle school are admitted into specialized high schools. However, the expansion of this program comes at the expense of students who score just above the cutoff, significantly decreasing their chances of admission. Fewer seats will be available for students who rely solely on the SHSAT for admission, since more places will be reserved for students who qualify for the Discovery Program.

In response to the proposed changes, parents at Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School filed a lawsuit on December 13, 2018, against the mayor and the chancellor. Alongside the plaintiffs of Christa Mcauliffe are the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York Organization, the Asian American Coalition For Education Organization, and individual parents supporting the SHSAT. They are accusing the mayor and the chancellor of discriminating against Asian Americans and violating the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from enacting policies with the intent to discriminate against a specific race. Each year, McAuliffe sends more than 200 students—most of whom are low-income Asian students—to specialized high schools, making it one of the so-called “feeder” schools. However, the school misses the Discovery Program’s minimum Economic Needs Index by just over two percent. Consequently, its students are not eligible for the Discovery Program and must instead face increased competition in regular admissions.

“According to [the] Defendants’ own public statements, their plan to expand and

reorganize the Discovery Program for admission into New York City’s Specialized High Schools is intended to racially balance the schools by limiting the number of Asian Americans who are admitted. [These] facially neutral policies enacted with discriminatory intent are subject to strict Scrutiny. Because Defendants’ changes to the Discovery Program were enacted for a racially discriminatory purpose and [didn’t] further [any] compelling government interest, they violate the Equal Protection Clause,” said the plaintiff’s final complaint from the United States Southern District Court of New York.

Though the lawsuit was spearheaded by the parents at Christa McAuliffe, parents around the city support the lawsuit. “The [PTA of Mcauliffe] is awakening and defending essential interests of the whole NYC or even America. By using limited resources to defend essential interests of the whole New York or even America, it deserves everyone’s appreciation, and I strongly support this lawsuit,” Zhiyong Qiu, a current parent of a Stuyvesant student and a member of the administrative staff of City University of New York, said in an e-mail interview.

There is no direct evidence that supports or rejects the supposition that the mayor intended for the program to be discriminatory against Asian Americans. “Regarding the lawsuit, one of the big parts of Discovery is that it has to do with income. We have plenty of students in this school [who] are admitted traditionally, [who] are qualified for free or reduced lunch, which is what Discovery requires. I’m not sure if it really does target what the intended group was. At the end of the day, it was still bringing low-income kids into specialized high schools,” Prabhu said.

However, Prabhu understands why the parents at Christa Mcauliffe are suing the mayor and the chancellor. “Change is something that is hard for people to understand and accept. This is a huge historical and systemic issue. As a parent, it is really hard to not be able to stand up for your kid. If something was in place for 50 years and had automatically changed, I would be upset too. To have prevented this, I believe that the mayor team should have done a better job of explaining how [the Discovery Program] works and why it works,” she said.

The first changes to the admission system will begin with the 2019 results. The plaintiffs are hoping that the results of the case will prevent the mayor and chancellor from enforcing their changes. There is no trial date set as of now, but based on the timeline of the New York City court system, it is almost certain the changes intended for 2019 entry will not be affected by the decision made. If the court deems the proposed adjustments to the SHSAT as unconstitutional based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza will be forced to undo their changes. This does not mean, however, that their efforts to improve the current specialized high school admissions process will be silenced.