By Jackie Delamatre
A city proposal to eliminate gifted and talented public school programs has started a complicated discussion on the Upper West Side, where a particularly large percentage of parents apply for the programs.
District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, has several gifted programs where children can apply starting at 4 years old, including at P.S. 163 on 97th Street; P.S. 165 on 109th Street; and P.S. 166 on 89th Street. The Anderson School on 77th Street is a citywide gifted school. In one recent year, more than 1,500 kids from District 3 applied for spots in gifted programs. As in other districts, the programs tend to have a higher percentage of white and Asian students than the overall district.
The Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released a report on August 27 recommending that gifted and talented programs be phased out. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not signaled whether he’ll follow the recommendation, but Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza indicated general support for the idea in a recent interview with community media outlets, including the West Side Rag.
“Gifted and talented is not a term I use,” he said. “There’s no such thing as gifted and talented now in our system. It’s just faster and more. I want a true program that serves the needs of intellectually gifted students and I want it available across the entire system. I want everybody in every school to have the opportunity for enriched learning.”
The proposal to phase out G & T has been met with criticism and questions from some education leaders on the Upper West Side.
Kim Watkins, President of the Community Education Council for District 3, said she worried about unilateral decisions being made in a city as big as New York.
She said that District 3 is already working on its own diversity plan and is concerned about whether districts would “continue to be encouraged to develop and execute their own plans or whether mayoral control would be executed without parent feedback and involvement.”
“I think checks and balances and engagement with constituencies is really important even if it makes it ugly. The process needs to bring out the voice of the people,” she said.
She also said that while her primary commitment was to ensure that all zone schools in her district could educate students properly, there are many parents who aren’t satisfied with their zoned schools based on attendance, grades, and test scores and want an alternative.
“The gifted and talented program in District 3 is a big deal – for a lot of parents and not just those escaping a zone school,” she said. “Many parents feel very strongly that their children need to be in an accelerated learning environment.”
Watkins said that District 3’s report on equity and diversity was so successful the city is going to use it as a template for others. One of its innovations is now in its third year and getting good reviews: At PS 191, second graders can apply to a G & T program that starts in third grade and admission is based not on a single test but on teacher recommendations and grades.
Approached outside of PS 191’s new stone-and-glass school building this week, PTA President Kristy Sanchez said the new G & T program at PS 191 is very popular. She described its population as diverse and said students do not feel isolated from others in regular education classes because they see each other for extracurriculars.
She hoped the program would remain and said attempting to teach “one way across the board for every learner is unrealistic.”
One parent, Angee Cortorreal, said her son is in PS 191’s G & T program and loves it.
“If anything,” she said, “they need more programs like this.”
Michael McCurdy, the founder of Testingmom.com, an online test prep company that prepares many young children on the Upper West Side for G & T tests, agrees. He said the G & T program is incredibly popular and the city needs “more programs like this, not less.”
Still, he acknowledged that the program needed to diversify.
“Certain communities are underrepresented. That’s true. I can’t argue with the facts. But give those kids an opportunity to enter the program. In many cases, parents don’t know the program even exists.”
He suggested testing kids in their Universal PreK and 3K programs and opening more programs in underrepresented areas like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
However, the SDAG report says the latter suggestion has already been tried. In the early 2000s, New York opened more than 20 new G & T programs intended for underrepresented communities but not long after, most of these new programs “were unable to fill a single spot in their incoming classes, because the majority of students in these neighborhoods and districts were low-income and not able to invest in equitable test-prep resources. Since the mid-2000s the number of G & T programs has nearly halved, with most surviving offerings operating in affluent white neighborhoods.”
McCurdy also wondered why the report hadn’t recommended altering admissions protocol the way Chicago had – by considering test scores, academic records, and socioeconomic status – instead of eliminating the program entirely.
McCurdy called it a “hasty decision” without enough input from the G & T community and said there would be consequences if the changes went through.
“What you’re really going to see are a lot of parents who can afford it opting for private schools. I’ve heard from parents exploring a home school program,” he said. “Other parents might move to an area with better gen ed programs. And we’ve heard from other parents who might just completely move out of the city and into the suburbs.”
But NeQuan McLean, co-chair of the Education Council Consortium, member of SDAG, and father of four children including one that previously attended an Upper West Side school, encouraged people to read the whole report.
“We don’t just say to get rid of the program but to replace it,” he said.
In place of the G & T program, McLean believes every school in New York City should offer an enrichment program to accelerated learners. Unlike PS 191, a G & T program starting in third grade didn’t work in his district in Brooklyn because families that qualified didn’t want to leave their zone school.
“Families should not have to travel to get a proper education,” he said. “I should be able to walk out of my house and go to school across the street and get a good education.”
McLean said that SDAG took families’ voices into consideration as they devised the report. There were town halls in every borough, he said, though he was frustrated that in some districts few families came out for these sessions.
“People thought the recommendations wouldn’t affect them and they didn’t show up to meetings,” he said. “Folks who showed up were like me – black and brown families who voiced their concerns about the current system.”
Still, McLean insisted that the report wasn’t intended to force other districts to comply. He also praised District 3’s report on diversity and its process for putting it together with community input.
This question of how unilateral the decision-making would be across districts has been a subject of consternation. Sara Lind, an Upper West Side parent and candidate for city council, thinks that SDAG could have done a better job communicating to the public.
“Maybe they should have been a little more careful about their messaging when they rolled out the report. Every single parent wants their child to have the best opportunities,” she said. SDAG “has to communicate to the public that everyone’s children will benefit.”
“I think the Upper West Side is a liberal place,” she said. “I know we believe in equity and inclusion. I know that our parents will get behind the right thing.”
Back at PS 191, another parent, Jenny Medina, agreed with SDAG, especially when it came to early testing. “The deck is stacked in favor of those families that have money,” she said. With all the test prep, “they’re not testing for the gifted and talented, they’re testing for privilege.” Medina said that even her family, with plenty of resources, was frustrated with the program’s practical hurdles. She’d had her son tested at a young age and while he’d done very well he wasn’t admitted to the G & T program steps from their house.