Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Friday major changes to the way hundreds of New York City’s selective middle and high schools admit their students, a move intended to address long-simmering concerns that admissions policies have discriminated against Black and Latino students and exacerbated segregation in the country’s largest school district.
New York is more reliant on high-stakes admissions requirements than any other district in the country, and the mayor has for years faced mounting pressure to take more forceful action to desegregate the city’s racially and socioeconomically divided public schools. Black and Latino students are significantly underrepresented in selective middle and high schools, though they represent nearly 70 percent of the district’s 1.1 million students.
But it was the pandemic that finally prompted Mr. de Blasio, now in his seventh year in office, to implement some of the most sweeping school integration measures in New York City’s recent history. The alterations, however, will not affect admissions at the city’s most elite selective high schools, like Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science.
When schools shuttered in the spring, grading systems and standardized tests used by the city to admit students to its selective schools were altered or paused. That has made it next to impossible for most selective schools to sort students by academic performance as they have in previous years.
Still, changes forged in a crisis are now set to outlast the pandemic.
“By the time I leave the mayoralty, I think we will have put the city on a very different course, certainly vis-à-vis screened schools,” Mr. de Blasio said in a news conference on Friday. “This is clearly a beginning.”
The new policies, which will go into effect for this year’s round of admissions, will affect how about 400 of the city’s 1,800 schools admit students.
Mr. de Blasio and his successor will no doubt face demands to integrate many more city high schools, particularly screened schools, which are among the most racially unrepresentative in the system. But the integration of specialized and screened high schools has long been considered a third-rail in the district, and changes made there would no doubt be highly contentious.
Middle schools will see the most significant policy revisions. The city will eliminate all admissions screening for the schools for at least one year, the mayor said. About 200 middle schools — 40 percent of the total — use metrics like grades, attendance and test scores to determine which students should be admitted. Now those schools will use a random lottery to admit students.
In doing this, Mr. de Blasio is essentially piloting an experiment that, if deemed successful, could permanently end the city’s academically selective middle schools, which tend to be much whiter than the district overall.
The time frame for a final decision on whether to get rid of middle school screening for good — which will come shortly before Mr. de Blasio leaves office on New Year’s Day in 2022 — instantly created a quandary for the phalanx of candidates vying to replace him.
The candidates are likely to be pressed on whether they would resume what has been a particularly contentious practice: measuring the academic achievements of fourth graders to determine if they can attend a selective middle school.
City officials said that because of the pandemic, there simply was not enough data to assess how rising middle school students were performing this year.
After schools were closed in March, the state’s standardized English and math exams were canceled, and the mayor scrapped attendance records as a measure of achievement. Students in younger grades switched from a letter-grade system to one that indicated if they passed a class or needed to repeat it.
In 2018, one local district, Brooklyn’s District 15, switched to a lottery admissions system. That closely watched effort, heralded as one of the most substantial desegregation measures in years, will now be extended across the city.
The admissions process for selective schools typically takes place in the fall, but was delayed this year because of the pandemic. Families can start applying to middle schools under the new system in early January until the week of Feb. 8.
In another major shift announced by Mr. de Blasio, New York will also eliminate a policy that allowed some high schools to give students who live nearby first dibs at spots — even though all seats are supposed to be available to all students, regardless of where they reside.
The system of citywide choice was implemented by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2004 as part of an attempt to democratize high school admissions. But Mr. Bloomberg exempted some schools, and even entire districts, from the policy, and Mr. de Blasio did not end those carve outs.
The most conspicuous example is Manhattan’s District 2, one of the whitest and wealthiest of the city’s 32 local school districts. Students who live in that district, which includes the Upper East Side and the West Village, get priority for seats in some of the district’s high schools, which are among the highest-performing schools in the city.
No other district in the city has as many high schools — six — set aside for local, high-performing students.
Many of those high schools fill nearly all of their seats with students from District 2 neighborhoods before even considering qualified students from elsewhere. As a result, some schools, like Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, are among the whitest high schools in all of New York City.
Mr. de Blasio, who twice campaigned on a message of combating inequality in all aspects of city life, has always had the authority to get rid of that admissions priority — and all others. But he has not exercised that power until now, and is doing so only after the principals of some of the most prestigious District 2 high schools publicly called on the city to diversify their schools by getting rid of the admissions preference for local students.
“As a public servant of a public school, it is my mission to educate as many students from as many different backgrounds who represent the abundance of the city in which we live,” Dimitri Saliani, the principal of Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote in an email to parents this week. “The lack of diversity among students, faculty and staff is a disservice to our community as a whole.”
New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, and his top deputies have for years urged Mr. de Blasio to get rid of the District 2 preference, according to officials with direct knowledge of those conversations.
The city will eliminate the District 2 priority for next school year, and will remove geographic preferences for all other high schools that use them for next year’s admissions. Some of those roughly 200 other high schools are not highly academically selective, but base admission in part on geography.
Mr. de Blasio also announced on Friday that the city would issue grants to five districts to be used to develop diversity plans for all grades, in the model of what District 15 parents did to eliminate their middle school screening system.
Over the next four years, the city will provide all 32 districts support to create their own integration plans.
The sweeping admissions changes still fall short of what many integration activists had hoped for throughout Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.
“I hope it’s the beginning and not the end,” said Rafael Lena, a Queens parent. “I worry that by only taking away screens and not intentionally putting in measures that would desegregate, and letting the schools come up with their own thing, we’d just open up those schools to affluent parents who will fill those seats.”
The mayor’s only major previous attempt to integrate schools — pushing the State Legislature to get rid of the entrance exam for the city’s elite specialized high schools — failed. In 2018, Mr. de Blasio said he would fight to eliminate the exam for eight top high schools, which are overwhelmingly Asian-American and white and have tiny percentages of Black and Latino students.
Those eight schools are among the only public schools in New York City that Mr. de Blasio does not control. Instead, the Legislature has authority over how they admit students.
The mayor’s focus on the specialized school entrance exam at that time prompted sharp criticism that he was discriminating against the low-income Asian-American children who attend those schools in large numbers.
Mr. de Blasio also struggled to answer questions about why he would not address segregation in other high schools he did control, including Beacon High School in Midtown Manhattan, that are attended mainly by middle-class white students. He has also mostly ignored a recommendation from a task force he created that the city overhaul its gifted-and-talented program, which is also starkly segregated.
The city also announced on Friday that it would administer in January this year’s specialized high school exam, which was delayed by the pandemic. The state requires the city to offer the test.
And for the first time, high schools will be required to publicly post their admissions criteria and rubrics for assessing students.
Students can begin high school applications the week of Jan. 18 and must submit applications during the last week of February.
Some parents in high-performing local districts expressed frustration about the changes on Friday. John Liu, a Democratic state senator who has emerged as a staunch defender of most selective admissions, said the city should consult more families on admissions reform.
“This administration should not make wholesale changes without full public discourse about the issues,” he said.