gifted moves

Among New York City’s deeply segregated gifted programs, one Brooklyn school aims for greater diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry learn to read number lines.

Families from across New York City flock to Brooklyn School of Inquiry in Gravesend — the kind of school where parents raise enough money to pay for extra helpers in most classrooms and a multi-million dollar STEM lab is being built on the roof.

But for all the gifted and talented school offers, Principal Donna Taylor says there is one thing lacking: a student body that reflects the diversity of the city.

Taylor hopes to make a dent in that. Starting next fall, BSI will become the first citywide gifted and talented school to experiment with new admissions policies to promote integration. The Department of Education has allowed the highly sought-after school to set aside 40 percent of its kindergarten seats specifically for low-income children.

“I think that was just what we needed,” Taylor said.

In joining the city’s “Diversity in Admissions” program, Taylor is trying to address striking differences between her school and others. Citywide, about 77 percent of students are poor and almost 70 percent are black or Hispanic. Last year, BSI’s poverty rate was 23 percent, and less than 10 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The disparity is not unique to BSI, or to gifted education. Citywide, about 73 percent of gifted students are white or Asian, and the poverty rate averages around 43 percent.

There are almost no students who are learning English, have special needs or are in temporary housing in the city’s gifted programs. Put together, they make up less than 10 percent.

“What we have right now is something we should be ashamed of,” said James Borland, who directs gifted education programs at Teachers College Columbia University.

While most gifted programs are housed within traditional schools, BSI is one of five citywide schools that enroll gifted children exclusively. The citywide schools are some of the hardest to get into, essentially requiring four-year-olds to land a near-perfect score on the standardized test used to determine who is “gifted.”

Districts used to be able to set their own admissions criteria for gifted programs. That changed in 2007, when the city standardized entry based on test scores, in part to increase diversity. A non-verbal test, also intended to address inequities, was added in 2012. Yet today’s gifted programs remain segregated.

That isn’t surprising since test scores are closely linked to socioeconomic status, said Allison Roda, who spent years studying New York City’s system and wrote a book titled “Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs.”

“You’re never going to integrate gifted and talented classrooms that way,” she said.

The current administration has tried its own methods to diversify gifted education. Perhaps the most sweeping effort was the launch of new gifted programs in four districts in Brooklyn and the Bronx that had gone years without. Those programs started this year, admitting third-grade students rather than kindergartners and using measures other than the traditional gifted tests to decide admission, including grades and teacher recommendations. Both moves could level the playing field by making it less likely that students test into gifted programs based on the advantages they bring from home.

In those new programs, 70 percent of students are low-income, 49 percent are black and 39 percent are Hispanic, according to the Department of Education.

Officials recently announced the more expansive third-grade admissions criteria would apply to another school: P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side, which has been embroiled in a long-standing rezoning debate.

Students at P.S. 191 are largely black, Hispanic and poor — and gifted programs are often seen as a way to help integrate schools. Roda criticized that approach, saying gifted programs just lead to segregation within school buildings.

“It is a way to attract white, higher-income families to a school. But once you do that, it’s like gentrifying a school,” she said. “You walk down the hallway, and you can tell which classroom is gifted and talented and which classroom is general education.”

The Department of Education did not make anyone available for comment on gifted education issues, despite repeated requests. In an email, a spokesman wrote: “We’re committed to increasing diversity and expanding high-quality elementary education for students and families – including through Gifted & Talented programming.”

Recent efforts, however, appear to have fallen short. According to city data, recorded in annual school diversity reports, the percentage of black and Hispanic and low-income students enrolled in gifted education has remained about the same over the last two years.

Borland said the city could instead move back toward allowing districts more flexibility in how they decide who’s “gifted.” Instead of one test cut-off score, students would be admitted based on how they compared to their local peers.

“That makes sense because you need a different program based on how you compare to kids in your class,” and not, for example, students in another borough, Borland said.

But ultimately, he said, “I would not base admissions on tests.”

The new enrollment policy at BSI is likely to have a small effect — one that could take years to play out. Because siblings of current students get priority in enrollment, precious few kindergarten seats are open in any given year. And even if BSI meets its enrollment target of 40 percent low-income, it would still be far below the city average for student poverty.

But Taylor says the school has to start somewhere. She admits some parents have questioned whether the initiative would impact performance.

Her response: “Sometimes the parents don’t have time to advocate for their kids, but that doesn’t mean their kids can’t do as well.”

Other parents have welcomed the change, and started an information campaign to encourage more families in the community to sign their children up for testing.

“This is a big deal,” said Sara Mogulescu, the parent of two students at BSI. “It’s important to a number of us.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.