‘Keep the test!’ Asian-Americans slam mayor’s plan on elite schools

At the end of the rally, marching around City Hall Park. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | “Keep the test! Vote them out!”

The chant flowed through the crowd of Asian-American parents and their kids as they marched around City Hall Park at the end of a mass protest Sunday afternoon.

Summing up their position were two signs among the many being toted: “Don’t destroy elite high schools” and “Keep SHSAT. Fix K-8.”

“SHSAT” refers to the Specialized High School Admission Test that students must pass to gain entry to New York City’s nine elite high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Lehman and Staten Island Tech.

Organized by the Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights, the throng filled the entire length of the sidewalk along the east side of City Hall Park.

According to the organizers, there were more than 2,000 people. A police spokesperson said the department does not provide crowd estimates.

Among the protesters was outspoken Chinatown activist Don Lee. Lee — who ran for Sheldon Silver’s former Lower Manhattan Assembly seat in 2016 — bluntly demanded that the city’s new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, be canned for comments he made last week.

“The chancellor should be fired for race-baiting,” Lee declared.

A Staten Island mother at the protest. People also came from as far away as New Jersey.

He and others at the rally accused the mayor and the schools chancellor of “scapegoating” Asian-Americans for the city’s underperforming schools and the fact that so many students are unprepared.

“We did not write the test,” Lee stated. “They’re scapegoating kids who study. They say, we’re ‘test robots.’ They’re completely marginalizing the tests and sacrificing the students. What is wrong with studying hard? We want everyone to succeed. The Asian parents, we nudge our kids a little harder — it’s not a crime.”

Carranza, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio just two months ago, ignited a firestorm on Tues., June 5, when he said of Asian-Americans, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

De Blasio and Carranza are pushing to “desegregate” the specialized merit-based high schools.

Asian-Americans make up 16 percent of the city’s school population but 62 percent of the students in the specialized high schools. Meanwhile, black and Latino students comprise 70 percent of the school population but just 10 percent of the students in the elite schools. Whites make up 15 percent of the citywide school population and 24 percent of students at the elite schools.

However, the mayor’s plan, the protesters said, merely amounts to a “quota system.”

Under de Blasio’s current proposal — which was first announced on Sun., June 3 — one-fifth of the students at the elite high schools would come from schools in impoverished districts; they would also have to score just below or above the entry level for the Specialized High School Admission Test, while also being among the top 25 percent of students in the entire school system.

The Assembly’s Education Committee narrowly approved the plan last Wednesday. The Assembly and state Senate would still need to approve the measure, but time is running out on Albany’s current legislative session, which concludes at the end of this month.

But the plan’s critics say there should be substantial public debate on the issue before such changes are even considered.

Lian Yi, an acupuncturist / journalist, left, and Lin at the rally.

In a statement, John Chan, chairperson of CAACR, the event’s organizer, said it’s wrong to think that many of the Asian-American students at the elite schools are not from low-income families, too.

“More than half of the students in the specialized high schools qualify as poor,” Chan said. “Many are immigrants who rely on the objectivity guaranteed by [the S.H.S.A.T.] to compete on a level playing field for educational opportunities. Despite his denials, Bill de Blasio’s proposals target Asian-American kids and toss out their hard-won achievements.

“We call on Bill de Blasio to respect students who achieve, no matter what their ethnicity; to stop pitting one disadvantaged minority against another; and to do something constructive instead: improve education for all communities, starting with the earliest grades!”

From left, Blake Morris, who is running against Simcha Felder, along with three of the rally’s organizers, Phil Gim, John Chan and Bernard Chow.

One school mom from Staten Island, who just gave her name as Chen, has one son at Stuyvesant and another at Staten Island Tech. A physician, she and her husband, a software engineer, immigrated here from Wuhan, China. After paying for graduate school, she said, they had “no money,” yet still managed to get their boys into the elite schools.

“People are using this as a political tool against us,” she said. “They’re trying to put one race against another one.”

Politicians at the rally included Assemblymember Peter Koo, state Senator Marty Golden and several Brooklyn district leaders. Also on hand was Blake Morris, who is running against state Senator Simcha Felder, with the Democratic Party’s backing.

Dany Chen, from the Chinese American Justice Alliance of the U.S.A., wearing a traditional Chinese shirt, led a group of 50 people who attended the protest.

Chinatown activist Lee noted that he did take the admission test to get into Stuyvesant, but didn’t make the cut, so attended Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side.

“Seward Park, all the way!” he said, and gave an enthusiastic air punch.

His daughter, meanwhile, did better on the specialized test, and currently attends one of the so-called “fine nine” schools for high-achieving students: the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. She gets up at 6 a.m. every school morning for her one-hour commute to the Bronx.

Chinatown activist Don Lee and David Lee (no relation) strongly support keeping the admission test for the specialized high schools.

David Lee, a friend of Don Lee, said that, back in 1978, when he graduated from Brooklyn Tech, there was a higher percentage of black and Latino students at the school. He attributes the decline to the city’s cutting, in 2000, the number of Special Progress classes, which helped students get prepared for the admission test.

A Stuyvesant alumnus in favor of keeping the test said his own kids currently attend Nest and Bard high schools on the Lower East Side, which are both high-performing schools. “There are a lot of good schools,” he noted.

Many Asian-American students take outside classes to drill for the test, parents noted. They added that other states, like New Jersey, have similar admission tests for elite high schools. However, there have been legal challenges mounted around the country against such admission tests.

Joe Chan, a Lower East Side parent, said the problem is that the New York City school system, as a whole, needs to be improved, and that just changing the student body’s composition at the specialized high schools won’t necessarily fix that.

“They’re masking the problem,” he said.

A petition on change.org for Keep SHSAT — to keep the elite high schools admission test — had garnered more than 15,000 signatures as of Sunday evening.

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