Shift in city's priorities seen as gifted program denied expansion

Parents of children admitted to the STEM citywide gifted program at P.S. 85 attend an open house Wednesday.

Every morning, Tim Smith and his nine-year-old son leave their Bronx home at 7:30 a.m., catch a MetroNorth train to 125th Street and then board the M60 bus into Queens — all so the third-grader can attend P.S. 85 in Astoria, home to one of New York City’s handful of citywide gifted-and-talented programs.

Even so, they brace themselves for an even more difficult journey ahead: Finding a middle school.

In 2009, when P.S. 85′s program opened as part of an effort to expand gifted education, the Department of Education pledged “to identify nearby middle schools where students in these programs can continue after fifth grade.” But last month, responding to parents’ pleas to make good on the promise, the department informed them that P.S. 85 cannot handle expansion into a middle school because it is already “operating close to 100 percent capacity.” It said students in the gifted program — called the STEM Academy (it stands for Science, Technology, Enrichment and Math) — must go to middle school elsewhere.

STEM is the only citywide gifted-and-talented elementary school program that ends with fifth grade. (It is the only citywide gifted program housed within another school.) Three of the four other citywide programs — Manhattan’s Anderson School and TAG Young Scholars, as well as the Brooklyn School of Inquiry — continue through eighth grade, and Manhattan’s NEST+M carries students through the end of high school.

“The school was meant to be a peer for the other citywide gifted programs, and admission to a middle school program was supposed to be seamless,” said Smith.

STEM parents charge that their program has been neglected because of a shift in priorities at the Department of Education.

Under former schools chancellor Joel Klein, gifted education expanded at a rapid clip, with an eye on keeping young families in the city and choosing public schools. In 2009, gifted schools opened in Brooklyn and Queens, including at P.S. 85. Even more were promised on the way.

“We’re going to open citywide programs in other parts of the city in the coming years as we continue to increase our outreach about the admissions process and identify as many of our City’s gifted students as possible,” wrote Klein in a March 2009 press release.

Now, the office of gifted education, formerly run by Anna Commitante, no longer exists, and the link to it on the Department of Education’s website connects only to information about admission to gifted programs. The Department did not return repeated calls and emails for comment.

Parents recall that the office was dismantled amid transitions from Klein to former schools chancellor Cathie Black in favor of a more inclusive approach to education. They say that children in gifted programs are losing out as a result.

The office was “for people who were not just figuring out enrollment and doing testing, which is all they do now,” said parent Michelle Noris, who has a child at P.S. 85. “There were people who were working on curriculums and creating programs. … Focus away from gifted and talented programs is, I think, part of an overall approach to heterogeneous classes.”

Other parents note that while department officials have promised to open 50 new middle schools over the next two years, they have not designated any as a citywide gifted program.

Parents at P.S. 85 say the absence of a middle school diminishes the appeal of their program. They say all that they are looking for is a guarantee that the kids will have a place to go for grades six through eight. The Community Education Council for District 30 this week passed a resolution supporting their effort.

“STEM is the forgotten citywide program because it’s not Brooklyn or Manhattan. We are the only one that’s not K-through-8, we sort of feel like the forgotten citywide program,” said Michal Melamed, whose first-grade son commutes to P.S. 85 from Manhattan. “We want equity with the other citywide programs.”

The citywide programs require the highest scores for admission: To enter a program such as P.S. 85’s, children must have scored in the 97th percentile or above on two screening tests. Last week, parents found out whether their children had made the cut for this year — and more than 2,600 incoming kindergarteners scored high enough to qualify for admission to citywide programs. But last year, those programs had only about 300 seats, making admission about as likely as getting into Harvard University.

Pressed about the shortage of seats in gifted programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said this week that the department was looking for ways to accommodate more of the children whose scores qualify them for admission but that more seats would likely not be added to citywide programs.

For now, current STEM parents must decide whether to try to procure a spot in the other citywide programs (a very long shot) or seek alternatives for middle school. The program’s oldest students are in third grade this year.

“There is a fair amount of scientific literature that suggests that it’s really hard for kids to switch school in middle school,” said Melamed. “Data suggests that having a K-through-8 model is how most of our schools should run.”

Mehrunnisa Wani is a student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. A version of this story originally appeared on New York World, a project of the journalism school.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.