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Lack of Elite Screened High Schools, A Tough Call for Bronx Parents

BRONX CENTER FOR Science and Math (pictured) ranks as the only screened high school in the Bronx that comes close to being among the city’s top 50 screened high schools, according to an independent analysis.
Photo by Adeline Hanssen

In 2015, Farrah Rubin of Riverdale was incredibly serious about enrolling her high-achieving son to an academically rigorous school, vetting schools using the New York City High School Directory and attending various school fairs.

She eventually narrowed the list down to screened high schools. Unlike Specialized High Schools, where the sole requirement of admissions is a high score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, screened high schools have more particular applications and offer a more challenging curriculum.

But as Rubin shortened the list, an observation popped: no screened school in the Bronx matched. The standards, she found, were lacking. “All the screened schools that we saw were in Manhattan. And that’s a choice,” Rubin said. “It’s a big commute, but yeah, we were very upset at the choices that we had. There really was limited choices. I feel in the other boroughs at least there was more choices.”

There was also the matter of convenience. Should she decide on a screened high school outside the Bronx, it would involve an hour-long commute. She ultimately opted for a neighborhood high school she was pleased with. The story could be different for other parents, who she feels are settling. “And I’m not complaining about my school. The kids are doing great,” Rubin said. “But there are better schools out there that we would like to have those choices here in the Bronx.”

Screened high schools are available in the Bronx, though none make it to the top 50 in the city, putting Bronx parents who place a high value on education at a disadvantage. That position is supported by an independent report compiled by David Rubel, a consultant with a focus on community needs. Among his clients are government agencies and community based organizations such as BronxWorks. Rubel based his findings on test scores incoming high school freshmen presented to administrators at screened high schools. The findings were corroborated by the Norwood News.

Rubel noticed the disparity when he began researching screened high schools for his sons, finding that the top schools are indeed in Manhattan, but nowhere in the Bronx. The report he drafted in September 2015 found that the top 50 screened are spread throughout the rest of the city. There are 21 in Manhattan, 17 in Queens, 10 in Brooklyn, and two in Staten Island, according to school year 2013-14 eighth grade English and math test scores Rubel used to support his premise. Manhattan’s enormous School District 2, where household incomes range from $94,022 to $114,939, houses the most screened high schools in the top 50 list, with 11.

To Rubel, the report exposes barriers Bronx students face when obtaining quality education. Among them is the decision to travel outside the Bronx to attend a top tier school, adding to an arduous roundtrip commute, and the realization that, when compared to students who reside near the top 50 screened high schools, they are low priority. “Why should parents in one borough have a whole group of schools to pick, and parents in others have almost none?” asked Rubel.

Entering Screened High Schools

Unlike specialized high schools, entry into a screened high school is largely based on test results from the state English and math proficiency tests students take in the eighth grade. A score of 3 or higher mostly qualifies students to enter a screened school.

“[T]here’s like an almost obsessive interest in the eight schools that administer the SHSAT exam, and then there’s a much larger group of schools that have many more students who are trying to get into them that are getting absolutely no recognition whatsoever,” Rubel said. “But the same underlying concept is there’s a group of students who are high achieving and they want to be in a classroom with other high achieving students.”

The screening process involves students picking schools they find matches with their interests. Students are accepted according to test score, portfolio of school work, and attendance.

But choosing a school doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get in despite fitting the criteria. Because the DOE places students into high schools closest to their home, a Bronx student’s request to be enrolled in a Manhattan-based screened high school is at a lower priority than a student living in Manhattan, and vice versa.

Another Bronx parent, who asked not to be named, said she spent many hours getting her child into a top screened high school, learning about the DOE’s screened school policies felt like a “full job time.” “We found that out the hard way by listing Millenium [High School] as one, and my husband and son went to the Millenium open house in Manhattan and then they said that it was a district 2 priority for the school,” she recalled. “[Y]ou had to live in the district first and foremost. Then priority went to students from Manhattan. Then to the city. Otherwise there’s a zero chance of getting in.”

Should a Bronx student stick with finding a screened high school in their borough, they are picking a school that falls below the top 50 screened school list. This forces Bronx students to simply settle for second best, accepting a less intensive form of education.

“These are kids who are going to college, who are going to succeed… Why are they not as equally valued as the other group?” said Rubel.

Ranking close to the top 50 screened schools is Bronx Center for Math & Science in Claremont Village, where an English and math score at or above 2.77 and 2.64 respectively can grant a student admission.

But even as students compete for admission into a screened school, seat availability remains a problem. Rubel’s analysis found that of the 18,964 students who took the English proficiency test in seventh grade, qualifying them to a screened school, only a total of 11,604 seats are available. “[T]he city should be developing more screened high schools for academically strong students,” Rubel said.

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