The great ‘ gifted’ gap

As NYC schools strug­gle to bal­ance ex­cel­lence and eq­uity, one ele­men­tary is ax­ing its pro­gram

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Erin Richards

NEW YORK – The hol­i­day per­for­mances al­ways gave it away.

Ev­ery De­cem­ber, as stu­dents at Pub­lic School 9 in Brook­lyn stood to sing hol­i­day songs while their par­ents looked on, one class would be made up of a lot of white stu­dents, fol­lowed by an­other class of al­most all black stu­dents.

From the out­side, the racial di­vide might seem cu­ri­ous be­cause PS 9 is one of the most di­verse ele­men­tary schools in Brook­lyn: Out of about 940 stu­dents, 40% are black, 31% are white, 17% are His­panic and 9% are Asian. But in­side, many stu­dents spend their days learn­ing in sep­a­rate groups. The gifted and tal­ented classes are at­tended by mostly white and Asian kids; the gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion classes, mostly black stu­dents.

“It wasn’t ob­vi­ous un­til you sat in the au­di­ence and watched ev­ery­one,” said Afiya La­hens, a black par­ent whose daugh­ter is in the gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion track.

Af­ter years of dis­cus­sion and com­mu­nity meet­ings, a mixed- race com­mit­tee of par­ents and teach­ers voted to phase out the gifted and tal­ented track for fu­ture stu­dents at PS 9, specifically to de­crease racial and eco­nomic seg­re­ga­tion.

New York City’s ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment agreed to fol­low the de­ci­sion: Start­ing this fall, there will be no gifted track for the school’s in­com­ing kinder­gart­ners. In­stead, PS 9 will offer en­rich­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to more stu­dents based on their in­di­vid­ual strengths and in­ter­ests.

The move put PS 9 at the fore­front of con­tro­versy sur­round­ing racial in­te­gra­tion in the na­tion’s largest school sys­tem – and one of its most seg­re­gated. It has raised ques­tions about whether

“The same things white par­ents want for their chil­dren is what we want for our chil­dren.” De­siree Grif­fith, whose daugh­ter took the gifted test in ele­men­tary school but didn’t qual­ify

school sys­tems can have both ex­cel­lence and eq­uity and whether in­te­gra­tion efforts should come from par­ents or of­fi­cial in­ter­ven­tion.

The con­tro­ver­sies have been par­tic­u­larly acute in Brook­lyn, where white and af­flu­ent fam­i­lies pop­u­late neigh­bor­hoods his­tor­i­cally in­hab­ited by black and Latino res­i­dents. Gen­trification has dis­placed peo­ple of color by driv­ing up rents and in­ten­sified racial strat­ification in class­rooms.

Phas­ing out gifted and tal­ented pro­grams at PS 9 will test a rec­om­men­da­tion from a school di­ver­sity panel ap­pointed by Mayor Bill de Bla­sio to end such pro­grams at all ele­men­tary schools in the city. The panel’s ra­tio­nale: Gifted pro­grams are bi­ased and serve to seg­re­gate chil­dren along lines of race and class, in large part be­cause ad­mis­sion to most pro­grams is based on a screen­ing exam par­ents can reg­is­ter their chil­dren to take, start­ing at age 4.

Wealthy New York fam­i­lies of­ten spend thou­sands of dol­lars on test prep for their preschool­ers be­cause the num­ber of gifted seats is lim­ited. In a sys­tem of about 1.1 mil­lion chil­dren, about 16,000 seats are avail­able in city- run ele­men­tary schools. As a re­sult, gifted pro­grams tend to iso­late af­flu­ent chil­dren, and the power and re­sources that fol­low them can re­sult in fewer re­sources for the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Across the coun­try, schools are locked in in­tense debates about what to do about gifted and tal­ented pro­grams, largely be­cause of racial dis­par­i­ties. Some dis­tricts have stopped track­ing gifted stu­dents. Oth­ers move to di­ver­sify gifted pro­grams by en­sur­ing more dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents have a chance to be tested.

In New York City, rad­i­cally over­haul­ing gifted and tal­ented pro­grams has long been a po­lit­i­cal third rail, largely be­cause the pro­grams are pop­u­lar with af­flu­ent par­ents whose chil­dren are en­rolled. That’s the de­mo­graphic New York sought to court in the 1970s and ’ 80s with gifted pro­grams in the first place, lest those fam­i­lies, of­ten with more in­volved par­ents and higher in­comes for tax pur­poses, move to the sub­urbs in search of bet­ter schools, ed­u­ca­tion re­searchers said.

“We got a lot of push­back” on the over­haul, said PS 9 par­ent Kirsten Cole, who is white. “I feel naive in say­ing this: It was more than I ex­pected.”

A com­plex di­ver­sity de­bate

New York City Schools Chan­cel­lor Richard Carranza has cham­pi­oned school in­te­gra­tion since de Bla­sio ap­pointed him in 2018. That en­er­gized ad­vo­cates for di­ver­sity, but many grow im­pa­tient that nei­ther leader has adopted the most rad­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tions to help all schools to re­flect the di­ver­sity of the city. The chan­cel­lor and the mayor de­clined to phase out all gifted and tal­ented pro­grams or to pro­hibit schools from us­ing achieve­ment mea­sures to screen chil­dren for ad­mis­sion.

Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials in­di­cate they’re more in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing efforts that bub­ble up from in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties. A spokes­woman told USA TO­DAY in­te­gra­tion ini­tia­tives are not a “one- size- fits- all model.”

The city has been un­der pres­sure to do some­thing since a ma­jor re­port in 2014 spelled out how New York schools had be­come the most racially seg­re­gated in the coun­try.

De Bla­sio floated scrap­ping ad­mis­sions tests to the most elite high schools – of­ten seen as the destinatio­n for gifted and tal­ented stu­dents – where black and His­panic stu­dents are un­der­rep­re­sented. That idea faced ma­jor op­po­si­tion, es­pe­cially from some Asian law­mak­ers and cer­tain alumni. It’s un­likely to go for­ward be­cause it would re­quire ac­tion from the state Leg­is­la­ture.

Then there’s the trou­bling fact that the move to elim­i­nate gifted pro­grams is op­posed by some black and Latino par­ents, whose kids it’s sup­posed to help. Some of those par­ents see ele­men­tary school gifted pro­grams, as well as elite high schools, as the only way for their chil­dren to work hard and get ahead.

“The whole thing is a red her­ring,” said Ayanna Be­hin, a Brook­lyn par­ent and pres­i­dent of the par­ent ad­vi­sory group in the dis­trict that in­cludes PS 9. Be­hin is black, and her chil­dren at­tend a differ­ent Brook­lyn school that pur­sued an­other path to main­tain in­te­gra­tion: It changed its ad­mis­sions poli­cies to set aside more seats for low- in­come stu­dents.

“Stu­dents in the gifted and tal­ented pro­gram make up a tiny per­cent­age of the sys­tem, and yet talk about elim­i­nat­ing that pro­gram gen­er­ates a huge amount of con­tro­versy,” Be­hin said. “What we re­ally need to be fo­cus­ing on is fixing the sys­tem for every­body.”

Inequal­ity and op­por­tu­nity

Some say fixing the sys­tem for ev­ery­one must start with how chil­dren are clas­sified and ex­pected to learn, which goes to the heart of the de­bate around gifted ed­u­ca­tion.

In New York City, chil­dren who score in the top tier of the gifted and tal­ented exam can com­pete for slots at city­wide gifted schools and pro­grams at tra­di­tional ele­men­tary schools.

In 2019, more than 32,000 stu­dents in kinder­garten through third grade took the exam, and al­most 8,000 scored high enough to qual­ify for a gifted pro­gram. That doesn’t guar­an­tee them a seat. Schools offer the lim­ited num­ber of seats in or­der of stu­dents’ scores on the exam.

The odds are low for black and Latino stu­dents. They make up close to 70% of the dis­trict’s en­roll­ment, but far fewer of them take the gifted test. Of all kinder­gart­ners in 2017- 18 who passed the test and re­ceived an offer for gifted and tal­ented, just 10% were Latino and 8% were black.

In con­trast, 17% of New York kinder­gart­ners are white, but they made up 39% of kinder­gart­ners who re­ceived 2017- 18 offers for gifted and tal­ented seats. Eigh­teen per­cent of kinder­gart­ners are Asian, but they made up 42% of the gifted seats.

Be­cause there’s no fed­eral stan­dard for iden­ti­fy­ing gift­ed­ness, states and dis­tricts come up with their own defini­tions – which is one rea­son re­searchers don’t have a clear an­swer on the benefits of gifted ed­u­ca­tion.

Some say highly tal­ented chil­dren can reach their full po­ten­tial only if they’re ed­u­cated along­side other high­achiev­ing stu­dents.

“It’s good for kids to be with their in­tel­lec­tual peers,” said David Lu­bin­ski, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity and a long­time ex­pert on gifted ed­u­ca­tion.

Other aca­demics say the strat­ification caused by am­bigu­ously defined tal­ent pro­duces dam­ag­ing lev­els of seg­re­ga­tion.

“If you think that pub­lic schools should be level­ing the play­ing field for all kids, then iden­ti­fy­ing chil­dren and rank­ing their po­ten­tial based on who signed them up to take a test tends to re­in­force the in­equal­i­ties we see in so­ci­ety,” said Al­li­son Roda, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Mol­loy Col­lege in New York, who wrote “Inequal­ity in Gifted and Tal­ented Pro­grams,” a book about gifted ed­u­ca­tion and seg­re­ga­tion in New York City.

Roots go back al­most 100 years

The first ma­jor stud­ies of gifted kids in Amer­ica started in the 1920s and ’ 30s when ur­ban cen­ters ex­pe­ri­enced an in­flux of im­mi­grants, Roda said. Schools in­ten­tion­ally cre­ated differ­ent tracks to sep­a­rate stu­dents by race, class and lin­guis­tic abil­ity, she said.

In 1957, af­ter the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sput­nik satel­lite, the United States ramped up math and sci­ence pro­grams for tal­ented stu­dents who could help the coun­try com­pete in the “space race.” When schools nav­i­gated the civil rights move­ment in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s, gifted ed­u­ca­tion re­mained a path where mostly white and wealthy stu­dents could be ed­u­cated sep­a­rately from their peers of color, Roda said.

For her book, Roda in­ter­viewed New York par­ents whose chil­dren tested into gifted pro­grams.

“They ad­mit that the ad­mis­sions sys­tem is flawed, but they still kind of work it to their ad­van­tage,” she said.

‘ Same things white peo­ple want’

On a Satur­day morn­ing in Bed­fordS­tuyvesant, a his­tor­i­cally black but rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood in cen­tral Brook­lyn, chil­dren climbed to the third floor of a Bap­tist church. They took their seats, snack bags in hand, win­ter coats still on, wait­ing for stud­ies in English and math­e­mat­ics that would last for the next four hours.

The stu­dents, all of whom were black, at­tend CAS Prep, a tu­tor­ing and test- prep busi­ness run by ed­u­ca­tor Sam Adewumi. He started the pro­gram ex­pect­ing that black stu­dents could bet­ter com­pete on the high- stakes exam for elite high school ad­mis­sions – which is sep­a­rate from the gifted and tal­ented exam for ele­men­tary schools – if they had ac­cess to the same tu­tor­ing wealthy fam­i­lies pur­sue.

He charges par­ents about $ 250 for a six- week ses­sion of Satur­day classes. By com­par­i­son, the test- prep com­pany Ka­plan charges at least $ 1,000 for eight tu­tor­ing ses­sions for the Spe­cial­ized High School Ad­mis­sions Test.

CAS Prep tu­tors about 150 stu­dents in first to eighth grades. Adewumi said many stu­dents are so far be­hind, they don’t have a re­al­is­tic shot at pass­ing the exam. Af­ter the first year or two of the busi­ness, Adewumi said, three stu­dents passed and got into elite high schools. These days, about 10 to 12 CAS Prep stu­dents each year qual­ify for top schools.

Adewumi – and many of his clients – are in fa­vor of the high school ad­mis­sions test, along with gifted pro­grams at the ele­men­tary level, be­cause they offer black stu­dents a shot at the elite ed­u­ca­tion that can pro­pel them into suc­cess­ful ca­reers, he said.

De­siree Grif­fith, a black mother whose 13- year- old daugh­ter at­tends CAS Prep, agreed. Her daugh­ter took the high school exam in Oc­to­ber but won’t find out her score un­til March.

“The mi­nor­ity chil­dren who are smart need some­thing to chal­lenge them,” Grif­fith said as her daugh­ter worked through al­ge­bra prob­lems with a clus­ter of four stu­dents.

Grif­fith said her daugh­ter took the gifted and tal­ented test in ele­men­tary school but didn’t qual­ify. She at­tends a char­ter school in Bed­ford- Stuyvesant, but she’s not chal­lenged enough, Griffith said. Grif­fith said the best way to in­te­grate schools is to make sure stu­dents have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties in all build­ings. She’d like to see a well- funded gifted and tal­ented pro­gram in ev­ery school.

“The same things white par­ents want for their chil­dren is what we want for our chil­dren as well,” she said.

More New York City schools used to have gifted and tal­ented tracks, but over the years, they were un­der­funded or were elim­i­nated be­cause of low en­roll­ment, said Brook­lyn Coun­cil­man Robert Corn­egy, who rep­re­sents his­tor­i­cally black neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn. He said he’d rather see the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion ex­pand gifted tracks at all schools rather than elim­i­nate them.

“I had one tool within that bro­ken sys­tem to try to level the play­ing field,” Corn­egy said. “And now you’re try­ing to re­move it.”

Change doesn’t come easy

A num­ber of grass­roots efforts in New York at­tracted at­ten­tion for tack­ling in­te­gra­tion. One of the most high­profile last year: a Brook­lyn dis­trict where all the mid­dle schools agreed to elim­i­nate selec­tive ad­mis­sions cri­te­ria for in­com­ing stu­dents. Stu­dents rank their schools, and an al­go­rithm matches them to build­ings while offer­ing pref­er­ence for chil­dren who are low- in­come, learn­ing English or home­less. The move helped to bet­ter in­te­grate eight of the dis­trict’s 11 mid­dle schools. A sim­i­lar ad­mis­sions pol­icy ex­per­i­ment took place in a Man­hat­tan dis­trict.

The depart­ment said about 100 schools across the city – there are about 1,800 in all – in­di­vid­u­ally try to di­ver­sify their ad­mis­sions. Five dis­tricts re­ceived $ 200,000 grants to de­velop com­mu­nity- driven di­ver­sity pro­cesses.

Par­ents who push for ma­jor change of­ten find them­selves in bruis­ing battles. Such as the one at PS 9 in Brook­lyn. The ele­men­tary school hosted at least four differ­ent tracks for chil­dren: gifted and tal­ented, gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion, a dual- lan­guage Span­ish- English track and a track for tra­di­tion­ally de­vel­op­ing stu­dents to learn along­side stu­dents with spe­cial needs. Over the years, it be­came clear that the gifted and tal­ented track had be­come the “whitest,” said Cole, the par­ent who co- chaired the school’s Eq­uity, Di­ver­sity and In­clu­sion Com­mit­tee.

“We could see pretty clearly that the ex­is­tence of the G& T track was pro­duc­ing seg­re­ga­tion in our school,” Cole said.

Teach­ers at PS 9, Cole said, told the com­mit­tee gifted classes cov­ered most of the same con­tent as the gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion classes, just a lit­tle faster. Teach­ers talked about the un­equal dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources to class­rooms that seemed to re­sult from the track­ing.

There was a small num­ber of vo­cal crit­ics, in­clud­ing white and Asian par­ents. Af­ter mul­ti­ple pub­lic roundtable ses­sions, a com­pet­ing pro­posal emerged to keep and di­ver­sify gifted and tal­ented at PS 9.

The di­ver­sity com­mit­tee ul­ti­mately de­cided to phase out the track, though that ac­tion had to pass through sev­eral lev­els of ap­proval.

Sup­port­ers of gifted and tal­ented pro­grams said there are ways to keep them and make them more in­clu­sive. The co- founders of Test­ingMom. com, an on­line preschool test- prep com­pany, said many black and Latino fam­i­lies don’t know the gifted and tal­ented test is an op­tion for them. They said the city should ad­min­is­ter the gifted exam to all chil­dren in its prekinder­garten pro­grams un­less par­ents opt out.

“Why would you get rid of the best ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram the city could of­fer?” said Karen Quinn, who founded the com­pany with Michael McCurdy, who runs a blog about gifted and tal­ented pro­grams in New York.

“I wish more than 1% of kids could get in,” Quinn said. “I wish 5% of kids could get in.”

En­rich­ment for all

PS 9 stu­dents in gifted classes will con­tinue through grad­u­a­tion. Sub­se­quent classes will ex­pe­ri­ence “school­wide en­rich­ment,” in which teach­ers of­fer in­di­vid­ual stu­dents chal­leng­ing ma­te­rial based on their in­ter­ests or tal­ents.

Schools in Wash­ing­ton, D. C., have taken a sim­i­lar ap­proach. The dis­trict no longer la­bels stu­dents “gifted and tal­ented.” In­stead, par­ents can choose from among 13 ele­men­tary and mid­dle schools that host in- school en­rich­ment for stu­dents who show strengths in specific ar­eas, from sci­ence to pho­tog­ra­phy to so­cial ac­tion. The schools are not mag­nets or test- in pro­grams, but it’s eas­ier for chil­dren to get seats if they live within a school’s bound­ary. A full­time teacher or com­mit­tee at the schools co­or­di­nate the ex­tra ac­tiv­i­ties.

With school­wide en­rich­ment, Ayani Wal­lace, 9, a stu­dent in the gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion track at PS 9, might have been given more op­por­tu­ni­ties in school to de­velop her love of fash­ion and de­sign. To nur­ture it, her mother took her to a class on how to write a busi­ness plan. Then they both en­tered a busi­ness-pitch­ing com­pe­ti­tion for their idea: an on­line ath­leisure cloth­ing com­pany for ado­les­cent girls.

Ayani and her mom won $ 1,000 in seed money, and they’re de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships with man­u­fac­tur­ers and rais­ing money to pro­duce a first round of clothes.

Re­cently, Ayani started notic­ing dif­fer­ences be­tween classes at her school – just like her mother, Afiya La­hens, had dur­ing those an­nual hol­i­day per­for­mances. She asked why she couldn’t be in gifted and tal­ented classes.

La­hens had taken her daugh­ter to the exam. Her most vivid mem­ory was 4- year- old Ayani re­turn­ing dis­traught be­cause she wasn’t al­lowed to play with toys dur­ing the test.

La­hens de­cided the truth was the best re­sponse.

“Well,” she told her daugh­ter, “you have to pass a test.”


Start­ing this fall, there will be no gifted track for kinder­gart­ners en­ter­ing Pub­lic School 9 in Brook­lyn.


De­siree Grif­fith watches her daugh­ter's class at CAS Prep.


Ed­u­ca­tor Sam Adewumi started CAS Prep to help give black stu­dents the same tu­tor­ing and test prepa­ra­tion wealthy fam­i­lies pur­sue.

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