Will expanding ‘gifted’ programs help or hurt NYC schools already struggling with enrollment?

P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan could face even more enrollment pressure under the city’s plan to expand gifted programs and change the way students are admitted.
P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan could face even more enrollment pressure under the city’s plan to expand gifted programs and change the way students are admitted. (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

Chancellor David Banks has argued it’s important to dramatically expand New York City’s gifted and talented program to lure families back to public schools amid yearslong sagging enrollment.

But in one corner of Harlem, the city’s plan set off a debate over whether opening more classrooms for “gifted” students would really be a boost for schools already struggling to attract students — or just create a competition even as some campuses can’t afford to lose any enrollment. 

The debate in Manhattan’s District 3 is illustrative of what many other districts may find themselves up against as the city races to open more than 1,000 new seats in gifted programs, and schools contend with enrollment pressures that have accelerated during the pandemic. 

Under the city’s plan, many local districts that didn’t have enough gifted programs will have to expand the number of gifted classrooms. But District 3 was in the unique position of having the program in areas outside of Harlem and not needing to add classrooms unless district leadership voluntarily chose to.

After families and educators weighed in, District 3 Superintendent Christine Loughlin decided not to propose a new gifted program in Harlem, according to Kent Hansan, a member of the local Community Education Council. (The education department did not confirm.) 

The city’s plan raises complicated questions about whether opening gifted programs, which are starkly segregated, is the fair thing to do for students who have lacked access to them. 

On the one hand, competition from new gifted programs could put already-struggling schools in an even more difficult position, with fewer students and therefore smaller budgets. 

“Any time you do something like this, there are unintended consequences,” Loughlin said at the meeting. “If we decide to put a G&T program in Harlem … the schools within Harlem will take a hit in terms of enrollment.”

Conversely, students already leave Harlem every day to attend gifted programs that aren’t available in their neighborhood. Without expansion, some parents argue that families will continue to opt out of their local schools and make long commutes to access gifted programs.

“We really do need to invest in the schools in this part of the district. Otherwise, students are going to continue to travel elsewhere, whether it’s lower in the district, charter schools, private schools,” said parent Genisha Metcalf, who has spent years advocating for Harlem schools in District 3.  “We’re losing students.” 

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The trouble with NYC’s gifted programs

NYC’s gifted programs have been a lightning rod because they don’t represent the diversity of the city’s students. Black and Latino students make up about 14% of gifted program enrollment, compared to about 60% citywide. 

Reforms have been difficult to implement, however, with the classrooms seen as a way to draw more affluent and white families to public schools. Asian-American students make up about 43% of enrollment in gifted classrooms, but just 17% percent of the city’s public school students. Some families rely on gifted programs as a ticket to higher-performing schools, and have fought against changes they worry could elbow out their children.   

Banks has positioned the expansion as a way to attract families who might otherwise leave the public school system because they’re unhappy with their options. Typically, about 25,000 rising kindergartners apply for only about 2,500 slots in gifted classrooms.

“Parents have been voting with their feet. They’re saying, ‘If you’re not going to listen to us and be responsive, then we will make other decisions,’” Banks said when unveiling the expansion. 

But most schools actually stand to lose students. 

With the new changes, every school district will be home to at least one school with a gifted program that admits students starting in kindergarten, and at least one school with a gifted program that admits students starting in third grade — leaving plenty of other schools in each district without either. 

The city is coupling the expansion with admissions changes, partly in the hopes that gifted classrooms will become more representative. Students would be admitted in kindergarten based on the recommendations of pre-K teachers. In third grade, admission would be offered to the top 10% of students at every school based on their report cards from the previous year, so students in schools without a gifted program would need to leave for other campuses in the district.

At the tip of Manhattan’s District 3 in Harlem, P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan, enrolls just over 100 students. The school has fended off a plan to merge it with another Harlem school in the past, and can’t afford to lose any enrollment. 

“I will just be very transparent with you and say, at this point, I have four second graders in my school. Four,” Principal Marcia Hendricks said at a recent public meeting held by parent leaders in the district. Losing her top-performing second graders to a gifted program would leave the class “decimated,” she said. 

Leaving neighborhood schools

District 3 includes the Upper West Side, home to schools like P.S. 87, where more than 62% of students last year were white and the PTA has been among the wealthiest in the nation. It also covers a slice of Harlem, with schools like P.S. 242 The Young Diplomats Magnet Academy, where 93% of students are Black or Latino, and 87% come from low-income families.  

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Many Harlem schools have struggled with enrollment, while families flock to schools on the Upper West Side, where all of the district’s gifted programs are currently located. 

Some parents argued that opening gifted classrooms in Harlem would have helped address the dual concerns of enrollment declines and the lack of racial representation in gifted classrooms.

Lucas Liu, president of the local Community Education Council, a volunteer parent group, said that every school in Harlem already sends at least one student to gifted programs in other parts of the city. 

“What about the Harlem kids who would benefit from these programs?” he said. “If you’re not going to offer a program in your school to keep these students, parents are going to find out there are all these empty seats in other schools.” 

Metcalf said that despite the committed efforts of parents like her, families still aren’t choosing to enroll in their neighborhood schools. 

“It’s really a shame that for years, if you tested into G&T, that meant that you had a 30-minute commute. You had to leave the district,” she said. “I think we need to just have some hard conversations about what equity means, what it looks like, and really provide a viable option within our school community.”

A different approach?

Principal Andrea Woodhouse-Spence knows what it’s like to lose students to gifted programs. 

At arrival time, she stands outside her school, P.S. 185 the Locke School of Arts and Engineering also in Harlem, watching students who live right across the street leave the neighborhood. They are heading to another school in District 3 — one on the district’s Upper West Side that offers one of the city’s coveted gifted programs. 

“Because there wasn’t a program that they thought was for them in my school… they felt that they had to take that trek to another school on the other side of Manhattan,” she said at a recent public meeting. 

She advocated in public meetings for a different approach to supporting students within their own schools. Instead of separate schools and classrooms with gifted programs, Hansan, the parent leader, suggested pursuing a model in which students are pulled out of their regular classrooms to work on more challenging assignments in smaller groups. That proposal closely mirrors what the previous mayoral administration proposed in an overhaul of gifted programs that was nixed when the current mayor was elected. 

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Woodhouse-Spence had offered her school as a pilot for such an approach, “to show that it does work, and it can work.” 

“Let’s just keep working together as one district,” she said. 

Can gifted programs become more diverse?

District 3 has tried to use gifted programs as an integration tool in the past. In 2017, the city launched one starting in third grade at P.S. 191 the Riverside School for Makers and Artists. The program was added after a bruising battle to redraw attendance zones around P.S. 199, which was an overcrowded school where most students are white, and P.S. 191, which had room to spare and served mostly children of color. 

Still, P.S. 191 has continued to struggle to fill its gleaming new campus and its gifted classrooms. The building was only 80% full last year, and there were 10 third graders enrolled in the gifted program, according to city records

“It does not work,” P.S. 191 Principal Stephen Hernon said at a recent public meeting. “We don’t get a lot of enrollment from it. It doesn’t really help students in any particular way.”

Parents in another part of the city, Brooklyn’s District 16, have come to a similar conclusion

After years of going without any gifted classrooms, the district in 2016 opened a program starting in third grade. But many parents didn’t want to transfer their children from schools they may have attended since pre-K, and principals launched new programs to keep their students rather than lose enrollment, said NeQuan McLean, the president of the Community Education Council in District 16, which spans the historically Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

McLean said that other parents declined offers to enroll because they believed that the gifted program didn’t offer instruction that was distinguishable from what students were already getting in their neighborhood schools. 

“It’s nothing different about these classes,” McLean said.

That is a sentiment voiced by parents of color in dozens of interviews by the researcher Allison Roda, who has studied New York City’s gifted classrooms. Parents told her the instruction they saw in gifted programs was similar to general education classrooms. Combined with worries that their children could be among an extreme racial or ethnic minority in the classrooms, many parents opted not to admit their students in later grades. 

In public meetings, many parents in the Harlem portion of the district were skeptical of the need for a gifted classroom, with other concerns of higher priority. One parent said her children didn’t have a gym teacher or opportunities to do art. Another said that children were struggling with mental health issues as the coronavirus continues to disrupt their lives.

“From what I’m able to see, these children are very distraught from the pandemic. These children need to have someone to support them, who is caring,” said Maria Nogueira, who has gone through the city’s training program to help provide mental health support to families at P.S. 242 in Harlem. “These children don’t need a gifted and talented program in Harlem.”

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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