By Alex Israel
One of three Upper West Side schools with a district-level Gifted and Talented program has decided to shutter it.
PS 163, a pre-K through 5th grade elementary school at 163 West 97th Street, recently told parents it will no longer accept applications for its entering kindergarten students. The school is a part of NYC District 3, which covers the west side of Manhattan from 59th Street to 122nd Street.
At the start of this year, the Department of Education (DOE) announced a new process for participating in the city’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) programs that eliminates the kindergarten entrance exam in favor of a teacher referral or opt-in interview that feeds into a lottery system. The citywide change led by the Mayor is in effect for fall 2021, and is intended to help promote more diversity in these programs.
With the phase-out of the PS 163 program, only two schools with district-level G&T programs will give priority to District 3 students, according to the city’s directory: PS 165, a pre-K through 5th grade elementary school at 234 West 109th Street, and PS 166, a kindergarten through 5th grade elementary school at 132 West 89th Street. (The Anderson School, a kindergarten through 8th grade program at 100 West 77 Street, offers a citywide G&T program in District 3 that prioritizes applicants who live in northern Manhattan and the south Bronx.)
PS 163 announced the changes to its program in a letter to parents this spring. “Beginning September 2021 we will expand the Dual Language Program from one to two sections, and we will begin to phase out our kindergarten Gifted and Talented (G+T) program. The G+T Program will remain in grades 1-5 until the program will gradually sunset,” wrote Principal Donny Lopez in the letter, dated March 17, 2021. “This decision was made following extensive community engagement and is aligned with our school vision and commitment to advancing equity and accelerating learning for all students.”
But one concerned parent who reached out to the West Side Rag says the letter was the first time they heard about any changes to the G&T program—and it came after Lopez had already gotten approval to shut it down. “It seems that this change was done quietly and fast and no one is willing to answer any questions about it,” the parent told WSR over email. Lopez did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In addition to narrowing the options for parents and students in a district already in “a desperate need for more G&T programs for many years,” the decision to shut the program down also disadvantages the city as it seeks to determine the success of its new application process, the parent argued. It will be “that much harder for any new students to make it into the program and … impossible to test the outcome of the Mayor’s decision,” they said.
Another parent later reiterated similar concerns to WSR. David Gorvitz, who has a child in third grade at PS 163, said he disagrees with the school’s decision to phase out the program. “This is a successful program by all measures,” he said, citing a range of positive outcomes he felt the G&T program contributed to, including successful summer reading challenges, District 3 science fair representation, and diversity within the student body. “It was odd for the school not to at least try out the DOE’s new admission criteria.”
Beyond the letter, which went out only to PS 163 parents, “no notification was sent to other parents in the district,” the first parent added, “despite the fact they are all affected by this decision.” While the school has updated the G&T section of its website to include a line about the program’s closure (“Beginning with the incoming kindergarten class for the fall 2021, there will not be a G&T class,” it reads), WSR could not find evidence of a more formal public announcement. Community Education Council 3 (CEC3) President Kim Watkins confirmed to WSR that the council, which is responsible for promoting and supporting educational needs across District 3, was not consulted on the decision.
Both parents noted that, as a result of the school’s response to the pandemic, the G&T program for current students is not in particularly robust shape. “Notably, while the program is meant to continue for existing students until they graduate, it has been effectively suspended for the duration of blended learning,” Gorvitz said. In the fall, he led a group of parents in trying to work with the administration to keep the program afloat during reopening. In the context of these recent discussions, he was even more surprised parents were not consulted about the program shutdown. “I was very surprised that we (and the G&T family community at large) were not consulted or even alerted regarding this change,” he said.
When the parents asked District 3 Superintendent Christine Loughlin for additional context on the decision and the future, they say she did not take them up on a request to discuss it in a dedicated district-wide forum, despite an interest from other parents. The Superintendent hosts a monthly district-wide “Superintendent Café” where the community is invited for an open dialogue, and attends the monthly CEC3 meeting, both of which have occurred over Zoom during the pandemic. It is unclear if the topic was brought up at either of these public meetings in April.
“This change follows extensive engagement with parents, staff, district leaders and the wider school community, and we are always open to discuss any concerns and help address them,” Loughlin said to WSR in a statement. “This will not impact any current students and we look forward to expanding the school’s Dual Language kindergarten program so more students have access to this opportunity.”
In a private correspondence with the first parent, “the Superintendent’s only response was that she is familiar with the situation and that the decision to terminate the program was done at an SLT meeting,” the parent said, noting they could not find a reference of such a conversation in any meeting minutes. School Leadership Team meetings are accessible to the public by request only, and have also been hosted on Zoom throughout the pandemic. “Since it was not widely known that the phase-out of G&T was on the SLT agenda and the well-known distractions of the pandemic,” Gorvitz said, “I don’t think that can be fairly described as extensive engagement with families.”
The parents say Lopez has told them PS 163 will switch to a more inclusive enrichment program to replace G&T in the future. He created an ‘Enrichment Committee’ to collaborate on plans for this alternate program, to help “fill the void left by G&T,” according to Gorvitz. In the committee’s two meetings so far, the parents said they first discussed their ideas of what “enrichment” meant to them, and later presented suggestions for their ideal inclusive program. Lopez has yet to share feedback with the parents on these ideas, or provide his own.
In an ideal world, Gorvitz said pausing the shutdown of PS 163’s G&T program—and then ultimately expanding it—would be his preference. A majority of parents citywide support G&T, according to a recent NY1/IPSOS poll. When asked whether they believed the next mayor should eliminate the G&T program entirely in public schools, 56 percent of parents rejected the idea, compared to 29 percent of parents who were in favor. (That said, de Blasio’s current plan isn’t to “eliminate” it so much as to change admissions criteria.)
“The phase-out of the G&T program was announced in the middle of the pandemic, when attention was elsewhere, less than 9 months before a new mayor takes office,” Gorvitz said. “I think a very sensible solution would be to delay the start of the phase-out by one year … to give the new administration a chance to review the program and put its own imprimatur on its future.” he said, reiterating his hopes for the program to resume at full strength for existing students in September.
In the meantime, “We are hoping to see some great ideas from the school administration, as well as a receptiveness to parent community input,” Gorvitz said. “I wish they looked to other developed countries when it comes to education, like they do with healthcare and gun violence. In other developed countries, advanced educational opportunities tend to be cultivated, not eliminated.”