What do U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, actor Lucy Liu, and BitTorrent founder Bram Cohen have in common? They all went to Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s specialized high schools.

Thanks to illustrious alumni and highly selective admissions, NYC’s eight specialized high schools are always a lightning rod. Their admissions process—based solely on student scores on a single standardized test—is seen by supporters as meritocratic, but critics blame it for the huge racial and socioeconomic gaps in access. Now that the state legislature is considering a bill to amend their admissions criteria, they are sparking debate once again.

As of 2014, black and Hispanic students accounted for 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders, but only 11 percent of the students admitted to the eight test-based specialized high schools. The proposed bill would allow the city to set multiple admissions criteria for these schools—considering students’ grades and attendance, for example—which could be a tool for increasing access to low-income students and students of color.

But while diversifying admissions at selective schools is an admirable goal, these eight schools admit only 5,000 students per year, less than 6 percent of NYC’s ninth-grade population. We must also have a conversation about how to promote high-quality education in integrated settings for the 94 percent of students at the rest of NYC’s high schools.

The Veritas Approach

A new high school in Flushing, Queens, is trying to do just that. Last year, Veritas Academy enrolled its first class of ninth graders. The school has no admissions requirements. Anyone can apply, with the only admissions priorities given to students who attend information sessions and those who live in Queens. But although there is no academic screening to get in, Veritas uses educational strategies usually reserved for gifted students to educate all of their scholars. Enrollment is quite diverse, and close to citywide public school averages: 73 percent of students at Veritas are low-income, 53 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 14 percent black, 12 percent white, and 1 percent other. Students enter with academic proficiency near the city average.

Photo Credit: http://www.theveritasacademy.com/

Applying gifted pedagogy to all students through the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) is something that some elementary and middle schools in the city have already done. This model is a promising alternative to self-contained gifted education programs, which have created segregated learning environments much in the same way that the city’s specialized high schools have. Veritas Academy is the first school to take this approach to the upper grades.

I asked Veritas Academy’s co-founders—Cheryl Quatrano, now the school’s principal, and Melinda Spataro, the executive director schoolwide programs—to share more about their unique approach.

Why did you start Veritas Academy?

Quatrano and Spataro: Veritas Academy is the first high school ever to open utilizing the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), providing a gifted and enriched education for all students. We wanted to expose more students to SEM. We saw the success of BELL Academy middle school [a school using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model that Quatrano and Spataro helped found in 2007] and witnessed diversity of students who benefitted from SEM. We wanted to start a high school where all constituents, both students and staff members, would recognize each other’s gifts and talents, and where there would be an emphasis on social-emotional growth as well as academic progress. We also envisioned a school where everyone knows your name, where there is an emphasis on giving back to the community and world at large, where students are prepared for the world of work and college and educated to be thoughtful leaders of the future.

What does it mean to provide “gifted education” for all students?

Quatrano and Spataro: Our school seeks to find the gifts and talents of all students, and to develop said gifts and talents for the betterment of the world. The Schoolwide Enrichment Model strategies was developed by University of Connecticut gifted education expert Dr. Joseph Renzulli. SEM provides enriched learning experiences and higher learning standards for all students through three goals: developing talents in all students, providing a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences, and providing advanced follow-up opportunities for young people based on their strengths and interests. SEM focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences that are constructed around students’ interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression.

What results have you seen so far?

Quatrano and Spataro: Last year, 93 percent of our students earned enough credits in ninth grade to be on track for high school graduation, beating the city average of 83 percent and the borough average of 85 percent. On the NYC School Survey, 100 percent of Veritas teachers said they would recommend this school to parents, compared to just 76 percent of teachers citywide and 82 percent within Queens.

How can we encourage greater equity and integration in NYC high schools?

Quatrano and Spataro: More schools should provide engaging and enriched educational programs in small, nurturing settings in low-SES communities. And the city should provide transportation for students from more-affluent areas to said schools. We also need more investment in educational resources, such as ample technology and space, social-emotional support for at-risk students (including on-site physical and mental health services), and parent resources and support.

Pairing High School Choice with Diversity

Veritas Academy is one of more than 700 high school programs in more than 400 schools across the city. In theory, the city’s eighth graders have a huge amount of choice in selecting a high school. But in practice, many students are locked out of the top schools. While the city’s specialized high schools are the most prominent examples of schools with highly selective admissions and skewed demographics, about a third of NYC’s high schools screen students based on academics, auditions, or other performance measures.

In order to create a choice system that provides better outcomes for more students, NYC needs a dual approach: promote diversity at specialized high schools and support more schools like Veritas that combine commitments to open enrollment, diversity, and challenging academics.