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Mayor and chancellor, please keep merit-based admissions

As students head back to school this week, many public school families are already thinking of next year because they need to apply to their child’s next school. If Mayor Adams and his schools chancellor want to convince parents to stay in the system, they need to make good on their campaign promises about improving schools and expanding advanced academic options. That means fixing the admissions process which de Blasio weaponized against Asian-American families and high-achieving students.

After losing about 90,000 students over the past two years, DOE projects another loss of 30,000 students before the end of this year. Adams can reasonably chalk that up to the failed policies of the former mayor and the pandemic, but those excuses won’t work going forward. Schools Chancellor David Banks inherited this mess and often speaks to it as the reason for his new initiatives: Gifted and talented program expansion, universal dyslexia screening, new science-based reading curriculum and more school safety agents. All good and all welcomed, but they will not bring back families who left, nor will it be enough to prevent the next wave of families from leaving.

More than 200,000 families will have children in application years: Pre-K applying to elementary schools, fifth graders applying to middle schools and eighth graders applying to high schools. The last two years upended expectations and plans, often years in the making, of the city’s families. Those of us who have public school children relied on a predictable schedule of events — admissions guides with clear criteria sent home in June, routine application timelines, G&T and SHSAT test dates, open houses that allow parents and students to see a school, and offer letters in March through May. Instead, under de Blasio’s equity-driven changes, we’ve been subjected to constantly changing admission rules and criteria including the introduction of lottery numbers and waitlists, uncertainties on test dates and significant delays in results and offers.

The DOE must get back to clearly communicating admissions policies and timelines that families can depend on. Can we start with a date for the SHSAT?

Adams campaigned on the promise of expanding gifted and talented, yet so far he has added just 100 seats to the 2,400 for kindergarten entry. This was hardly the expansion that families were hoping for. Worse, Adams indicated he supported objective universal testing, but he continued de Blasio’s last-minute change to subjective teacher assessments of 4-year-olds. We want DOE to bring back the objective test, and make plans for meaningful expansion so all children in all neighborhoods have access and opportunity to attend.

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If Adams and Banks are serious about stopping the hemorrhaging of New York City families from schools, the most important fix is meritocratic admissions to middle and high schools. Merit matters to families; it is an opportunity to differentiate and develop students with high potential. For low-income, immigrant families, this is a chance for their children to access education typically only available in schools in high-priced suburbs.

We want the DOE to bring back screened admission to middle schools and high schools. Make use of grades, test scores, essays, auditions to match students to schools based on merit. Lottery numbers are not a winning strategy for educating our children.

Families have good reason to believe that lottery numbers for admissions served their intended purpose of re-organizing schools by racial compositions to lower the number of Asian students at in-demand schools. Based on the DOE’s published results, 30% of Asian students did not get their top five school options, compared to 24% for white, 11% for Hispanic, and 10% for Black students.

Finally, kids should always have the option to stay close to home, but in an increasingly unsafe city and subway system, the need to reduce travel time to schools is ever more important to families. Thousands of Manhattan families lost that priority when the DOE eliminated district and borough priorities for the city’s high schools. Exacerbated by the lottery process, 18% of District 2 eighth-graders did not get an offer to any of the 12 schools they listed. The DOE restored geographic priorities for zoned programs and schools in the other boroughs last year. They could and should do so for Manhattan this year. Don’t force kids on long commutes. Where’s the Equity in that?

Keeping families in NYC is not just about school admissions, but admissions is key to retention. As young families preview what lies ahead, many are opting to not roll the dice in an uncertain process and they make plans to access schools elsewhere that can ensure some certainty.

We need normalcy, predictability and a return to high standards. Merit, not lottery, should determine a child’s school. We urge the mayor and chancellor to get back to what works and not propagate the divisive and harmful policies from the prior administration.

Chu is a public school parent, president of Asian Wave Alliance and cofounder of PLACE NYC.

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