With diversity still dismal at specialized schools, New York City officials and parents shift focus to gifted programs

It’s a long-established fact that New York City’s gifted programs and elite specialized high schools don’t serve all communities equally.

But what’s causing those disparities — and how to address them — are both still matters of debate. That much was made clear at a forum in Bedford-Stuyvesant hosted this week by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents.

“We want to have a bottom-up policy by hearing from people who are impacted,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “Then we can leverage our strength as borough presidents to get the [Department of Education] to move in the direction based on what people are asking for.”

Though 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, they make up only 27 percent of students in gifted programs. In the city’s specialized high schools, which base admissions on the results of a single exam, only 10 percent of this year’s admissions offers went to black or Hispanic students.

At Tuesday’s task force meeting, parents, community activists and alumni of specialized high schools all weighed in with different perspectives on what needs to change: Is the answer to provide more gifted programs — or fewer? Should the specialized high school test be done away with? Is more test prep the answer — or part of the problem?

The task force hopes to collect personal anecdotes and areas of consensus in a report that will be presented to the city Department of Education, along with a set of recommendations.

Already, one common theme is emerging: The city needs to start earlier if it wants to solve the problem.

Alumni from specialized high schools including Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant argued that, without access to gifted programs early on, black and Hispanic students are at a disadvantage when it comes to making it into specialized high schools.

Gifted programs offer accelerated instruction tailored to “exceptional” students, according to the city’s gifted handbook.

Attendees at the forum agreed that the city should do a better job of providing those students with options for gifted programs. “There is a bias — but it’s in the level of preparation,” said Cheryl Spencer, a Stuyvesant alum who also attended a gifted program in elementary school. “It needs to be in our neighborhoods and in our schools early.”

Her argument hints at a shift away from the contention of educators and researchers that the Specialized High School Admissions Test is the main barrier for black and Hispanic students.

“The answer is not nearly as simplistic as replacing the SHSAT test with multiple criteria,” said Sam Adewumi, reading from a statement by the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation. “It is incumbent upon the city to identify from an early age those students with high potential … and nurture those students.”

In 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg standardized gifted testing in an effort to make the system more fair. But critics say the changes had the opposite effect, increasing racial disparities.

Alumni at the forum told stories of traveling far outside their neighborhoods to attend gifted programs that weren’t available at their local schools.

“You can get scared to send your kids — especially a black child — into all-white neighborhoods,” Spencer said.

The city Department of Education recently launched new gifted programs in districts that had long gone without — Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Typically, entry into gifted is based on the testing of pre-K students. The new programs, however, start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of factors, including teacher recommendations.

The department has announced other new gifted programs — one will open at P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side — but there is a sense that the city is generally reluctant to expand its gifted offerings.

Diaz pointed out that there is no citywide gifted school in the Bronx, while Manhattan has three. Citywide gifted programs admit students regardless of where they live. They are the most selective, essentially requiring pre-K students to land a perfect score on gifted tests.

“Currently the DOE’s and Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña’s stance is basically that they really don’t want to invest and go down that route with gifted and talented and what they call, sort of segregating students,” Diaz said.

Both citywide gifted programs and in-school ones have been accused of segregating students. Jennyfer Bagnall, PTA vice president at P.S. 316 in Brooklyn, where her son is in a gifted class, thinks that tendency can be mitigated. Bagnall said P.S. 316 makes sure students have the chance to play basketball together or perform in a play.

“I know my child is going to be able to read, is going to be able to do the math. But I need my child to be able to socialize, to problem-solve, to be able to play on a basketball team and not cry when he doesn’t win,” she said. “So, for that reason, to separate these children into groups [as they are in citywide gifted schools] may not necessarily help. You don’t want these children to think they’re better than other children.”

The task force will also touch on the low numbers of students who take the gifted test in poorer districts. In Manhattan’s District 2, which includes Downtown and the Upper East Side, more than 1,600 students took the gifted test. In Brooklyn’s District 16, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, fewer than 300 did. It’s unclear whether that’s due to a lack of outreach or if some parents simply don’t bother with the test since there aren’t many programs close to home.

While earlier proposals to test all children for gifted programs have failed to gain traction, City Councilman Robert Cornegy, who also attended the task force hearing, is one of 10 sponsors on a proposal to require the education department to include testing information in Pre-K for All information packets.

“We feel like having to opt-out, rather than opt-in, is the right way to go,” he said. “This is a clear path for success for inner-city and minority students. It is fairness and equity.”