After a Late Start, City Recruits More Middle Schoolers for Specialized High School Prep

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Specialized high school test prep at one of the city's DREAM Intensive courses, held at P.S. 89 in the Bronx.

The city's elite public high schools have a diversity problem. Fewer than 10 percent of those offered seats this year at Stuyvesant and the seven other specialized high schools are black and Latino, even though the two groups account for about two thirds of all city public school students.

The Department of Education announced plans that could help change that in June. They involve expanding access to vital preparation classes needed to pass the single admissions test given to eighth graders each October. Many kids take private classes.

This summer, the city expanded DREAM, a free test prep course run by the Department of Education. The program was previously only open to sixth graders because the city said they needed two full years of preparation. Students are selected for DREAM based on their state test scores and must come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch (the city does not use race as a factor).

For the first time, the city allowed rising eighth graders into an intensive version of DREAM from July through October. The city originally said it would recruit up to 500 of these older students, regardless of family income, from 15 neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan that are underrepresented in the specialized schools.

However, because the announcement was only made in June, schools had little time to identify high-scoring candidates. The Department said it wound up enrolling about 300 students.

Nonetheless, officials said they consider that a success because they call the new intensive course a pilot program. Patrick Berry the senior director of instruction in the Office of Equity and Access, oversees DREAM. He predicted the program will easily attract 500 students next year with more time for recruitment and word of mouth.

"I believe that having seen students in the community get test prep and then get an offer [to specialized high schools] will not only inspire families to take advantage of our program, but seek out other programs," he said.

City officials have long known that low-income black and Latino communities are less likely to send their children to test prep than other groups. Test prep courses have proliferated in Asian communities, where students are used to taking cram courses and receiving extra tutoring in their home countries.

In addition to expanding DREAM to rising eighth graders, the city has organized outreach teams to encourage more students to take the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) and attend after school prep classes.

For the first time, the test will be held on a weekday at key middle schools on Oct. 25 (it's normally held only on a weekend). The Department of Education originally planned to offer the weekday test at five schools but has expanded that now to seven. It said the schools were selected because they're in low-income areas and have a lot of high-performing kids who didn't take the SHSAT last year. They are: I.S. 73 and J.H.S. 157 in Queens, Tompkins Square Middle School in the East Village, P.S. 71 in the Bronx, Conselyea Prep and J.H.S. 278 in Brooklyn and I.S. 51 in Staten Island.

Several alumni groups from the specialized schools have been urging the city to offer more test prep. David Lee, executive director of CoalitionEDU, called the DREAM Intensive a "step in the right direction."

But he added, "We do wish the implementation of expanded programs were smoother and hope that any budget items that remain unspent can be added onto the back end." Both the state and city have provided additional funds for test prep.

Students at DREAM Intensive have been taking summer classes four days a week from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., and will continue this fall after school and on weekends. The program selects kids with even higher state test scores than those in the regular DREAM classes because they have less time for review.

At P.S. 89 in the Bronx, 12-year-old McKenzie Samuels is among those reviewing algebra and word problems this summer. She said she hadn't even known about the test for the specialized schools until she saw a fellow student at M.S. 180 near Co-op City cramming from a "gigantic book" during lunch. Though she has less time than kids who started cramming when they were younger, she said, "I think I have enough time to be put in the work."