First Person

The city’s gifted education system needs to shift, one school at a time

I visited BELL Academy M.S. 294 in Queens on a Wednesday morning in May to see a special breed of education in action. In one room, I watched a group of three students photograph a miniature scene made up of Legos and paper cutouts—then make a slight adjustment to the scene—and photograph again. Several thousand frames later, they will have completed a stop-motion animation video. Across the hall, a student showed off a painting she made to raise awareness about bullying, inspired by the social commentary in the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In the hallway, students walked by with a tablet taking pictures for the school newspaper.

As an education policy researcher at The Century Foundation, I study the academic and social benefits of school integration. I examine research, conduct interviews, and visit schools to identify promising practices that promote diversity and inclusion in schools. I came to BELL in search of a more equitable approach to gifted education, and found a model I think other city schools should examine closely.

New York City’s gifted and talented programs have a long history of creating socioeconomic and racial segregation within schools. But BELL Academy offers a promising alternative: extending enrichment opportunities to all students.

Under the city’s current G&T system, screening happens at a young age—typically preschool—when children’s educational opportunities are largely a product of their socioeconomic status. Students are admitted based on scores from a standardized test, giving a leg up to families that can afford test prep and push for re-testing. And G&T programs typically serve students in self-contained classrooms, separating them from their peers.

According to a recent report from New York Appleseed, about 70 percent of kindergartners citywide in 2011 were black or Latino, while more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted and talented programs were white or Asian. Wealthier community school districts consistently have the most G&T placements. Schools with G&T programs may look racially and socioeconomically diverse while classrooms are highly segregated.

BELL Academy takes a different approach.

BELL was founded seven years ago by a team led by Cheryl Quatrano and Melinda Spataro, energetic veteran educators who worked in the city’s G&T programs for a number of years—and fought to make them more diverse. Quatrano and Spataro started BELL Academy based on an approach of “gifted education for all,” using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model developed by University of Connecticut professors Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis.

BELL is not a school for “gifted” students, and there are no screening criteria for admission. But all students at BELL receive tailored instruction designed around the core principles of gifted education: identifying students’ talents, enhancing curricula, differentiating assignments to ability, and providing enrichment opportunities.

The film, art, and journalism projects I saw unfolding were part of the school’s “enrichment clusters,” elective classes that give all students the chance to engage in in-depth projects outside of the regular curriculum that fit their interests and learning styles. In other schools, this style of education might be reserved for only the “best and brightest,” but the premise of SEM—backed by years of research—is that it is possible to expand enrichment programs to all students without sacrificing quality of instruction.

BELL teachers also use SEM as a way of modifying the regular classroom instruction to meet the individual needs of a wide range of students. All BELL students start the year by taking a survey of interests and talents that, when combined with academic data, gives teachers a good idea of how to engage and challenge each student. An online platform allows teachers to provide students with enrichment materials on engaging subjects at just the right reading level to challenge them, whether they’re reading six levels above their grade or three levels below.

The SEM approach also means that teachers are constantly looking for opportunities to extend students’ knowledge beyond the classroom. Principal David Abbot explained how a visit from Chancellor Carmen Fariña earlier this year turned into an opportunity for two students interested in animal rights to write persuasive essays on the proposed ban on horse-drawn carriages, which Fariña delivered to Mayor de Blasio.

Fariña is no stranger to SEM. Back when she was principal of P.S. 6 in the Upper East Side, she ended the school’s popular G&T track in favor of a schoolwide approach. During her tenure as schools chancellor, she has expressed skepticism about the current G&T model and said she favors “neighborhood schools that provide gifted practices to all students.”

But implementing SEM in today’s education climate is challenging. An effective SEM program requires teacher training, resources for enrichment supplies and opportunities, and small class sizes. And with schools under immense pressure to improve test scores, adopting a school model that takes time away from the core curriculum to nurture talents and promote inquiry can be a hard sell—particularly when all students, not just top scorers, participate in enrichment.

Making any changes to G&T programs is also a politically tricky proposition that requires going up against a vocal group of largely middle-class parents who support the status quo. Despite her support for SEM, Fariña said in a recent interview that she has no plans to change the current system.

In the meantime, the best chance for changing gifted education and expanding SEM in the city is one school at a time. During the seven years that it’s been open, BELL has shown consistent academic success and booming popularity. Quatrano and Spataro have gone on to start Veritas Academy, the first high school in the world to use SEM, which opened in Flushing, Queens, last fall. And over in Park Slope, Brooklyn, two schools recently ended their G&T programs over concerns of segregation.

So far, these experiments are succeeding. Maybe more will follow.

Have other ideas about the future of gifted and talented education in the city? Let us know here, and sign up for our morning newsletter for more news and viewpoints.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.