Acortando la brecha — Bridging the gap of language

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It’s not always easy to find important information — especially information about getting into some of the city’s top schools — in Spanish. But for one day at the Bronx High School of Science, recently, it was English speakers struggling to find literature in their native tongue.

That’s exactly what schools chancellor Richard Carranza was hoping for when he visited Bronx Science last month, pushing for more diversity in that institution and other specialized schools like it.

Getting the word out in more than just English has been a push for Carranza since taking over the city’s top education job last April. And it’s even more important now, especially since there’s been a concerted effort to eliminate the specialized high school assessment test — the key exam required to get into Bronx Science and other schools.

But eliminating the SHSAT appears to be something the chancellor could live with, and even support.

“People have talked about the validity study that was done with the SHSAT admissions test back in, I think, 2003,” Carranza said. “That test is invalid. It’s not reliable, and anybody who does well on the test is obviously going to do well in any school they go to. But it doesn’t predict talent. It doesn’t predict who has the capabilities to go to a specialized school.

“I professionally and personally just have a real challenge with a single test to decide who gets to have an opportunity to go to specialized schools.”

The  SHSAT has been a focus of contention in recent months, especially after Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio offered support for Brooklyn Assemblyman Charles Barron’s bill proposing a  phase-out of the SHSAT over the next three years. It would be replaced with a new method offering slots to the top students from public middle schools across the city, ultimately making the test obsolete.

Such a move, proponents say, will open the door for a more ethnically diverse offering at specialized schools.

The tests, however, don’t leave everyone out. Christian Barnes is an alum of Brooklyn Technical High School, and believes one of the problems facing prospective students at specialized high school is that they learn about their availability far too late.

“I didn’t know much about specialized high schools when I went to middle school myself, and so I think it’s important for people to know about these schools earlier,” he said, not “two weeks before they take the test.”

That was the idea behind this particular fair at Bronx Science — organize an experience different from what Barnes and other students like him encountered in their middle school years by not only offering preparation for admission to specialized schools, but also by providing access to resources.

The fair catered to non-English speakers from the presentation to the resource tables in the cafeteria where Latin music was played and empanadas were served. It gave students and parents an opportunity to learn about specialized schools in their native tongue in a space dedicated solely to this demographic — all for what organizers said was the first time.

The literature available included information on specialized schools, when to apply, how students could register for the SHSAT, how the test was structured, and how to prepare. The fair even gave students 2018-19 specialized high school student handbooks.

This approach helps particularly those who are English language learners, or ELL students.

These are students who typically struggle to communicate or learn successfully in English, typically coming from non-English-speaking homes. ELL students require a modified course to accommodate the language barrier.

When it comes to black and Latino students, although they make up two-thirds of the city’s public school population, they fill just 10 percent of the seats in specialized high schools.

“I think that there definitely needs to be work done to the disparity between the populations that go,” Barnes said. “I very much appreciate the initiatives that go out and makes sure that information gets out, and I think it’s a great many steps in the right direction.”

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