advanced placement

Uproar continues over ending 'gifted' classes at Ditmas Park's P.S. 139, though program an outlier

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
A firestorm has erupted around the decision to end three programs at P.S. 139 in Ditmas Park, seen above.

A decision to eliminate a special program at a Ditmas Park elementary school has sparked two weeks of furor among some parents, and struck more than a few commentators as a sign of new mayor Bill de Blasio’s coming war on the gifted and talented.

That rhetoric misses what’s actually happening at P.S. 139, where more than 1,000 elementary school students fill the building that has guarded the corner of Rugby and Cortelyou roads in Ditmas Park since 1902.

For years, that building has been divided into smaller programs, including two “mini-schools” and an advanced program known as Students of Academic Rigor. Principal Mary McDonald’s recent decision to eliminate SOAR for next year’s kindergartners means P.S. 139 is belatedly falling in line with schools in the rest of the city, where most schools’ internal advanced programs disappeared under a Bloomberg administration push to standardize gifted screening — a push driven by equity concerns and led by a top de Blasio education official.

Even though parents know P.S. 139’s SOAR program as a gifted program, it is not a part of the district’s official gifted and talented offerings, which allow students who score high enough on the city’s gifted screening exam to attend gifted programs at six other schools in District 22. Instead, SOAR concentrates many of the school’s highest achievers and allows them to stay together from kindergarten to fifth grade.

“It seems it is a vestige of the old way of doing the gifted programs,” Insideschools’ Pamela Wheaton said. “In pockets around the city, they’re doing their own thing.”

McDonald’s plan, first reported by Ditmas Park Corner last week, will eliminate both SOAR and the mini-schools for incoming students, and teachers will be tasked with providing appropriate work for all of their students.

“We believe we can have both: classrooms characterized by rigor and diversity,” McDonald wrote in a follow-up letter to parents.

The SOAR program admits students based on a test given by the school, and the two mini-schools admit students by lottery. But neither program was open to all in practice, many parents and McDonald admitted. Parents had to request that their child be tested for SOAR and be entered into the lottery for the mini-schools, leaving some less-connected and non-English-speaking parents out of the loop.

Reniya Abdalla, whose daughter attends first grade at P.S. 139, said she saw it happen. She knew to have her daughter tested for SOAR, though she didn’t score high enough to enter the program. But “not everyone knows,” she said.

On Thursday night, McDonald told a group of parents that the school’s current enrollment policies for those programs have created inequity. Both programs have a heavy overrepresentation of students living above the poverty line, a disparity that has been growing each year, she said.

Of the 12 or 13 percent of the school’s current kindergarten class that does not qualify for free or reduced price lunch, just one student is not in one of the school’s special programs, according to McDonald.

McDonald filled a presentation to parents on Thursday with quotes from researchers showing that tracking students by ability level provides negligible academic benefits and significant social drawbacks. “We need to do less assuming that students aren’t aware of the stigma of being placed in ability groups,” she said.

But many parents said they still felt blindsided by the decision, and remain disappointed that students and parents won’t be able to benefit from the smaller communities they formed in the mini-schools and SOAR program. Gela Bulku, whose first-grade son has spent a year in the SOAR program and a year in one of the mini-schools, said teachers in those programs were also more welcoming to parents coming into the school.

“You can go in every day if you want,” she said.

Another parent of a kindergarten student was hesitant about how the changes at the school would affect students and their learning.

“There’s a lot of diversity at this school. That’s a great thing, but do they have a plan for how to mix them all together in one classroom? It’s not a negative, but how do you address that?” she asked.

Department of Education spokesman Harry Hartfield said the decision to eliminate the programs was the principal’s, not the city’s. But changes to the structure of the city’s gifted programs helped pave the way for the school’s current plan.

Almost every school in District 22 had a gifted program before 2008, according to Wheaton. Then, under the leadership of Anna Commitante — who last week was appointed to a top position in de Blasio’s Department of Education — the city standardized the gifted testing process, citing the need to level the playing field across districts.

That change actually made the city’s gifted and talented programs less diverse, with some districts now having no programs at all. It also meant the city decided what schools would have gifted programs, and P.S. 139’s program was eventually phased out.

But officials there continued separating out advanced students on their own, placing them in programs that helped attract students whose parents might have looked elsewhere for a more rigorous curriculum. At P.S. 139 and other schools with similar SOAR programs, the “gifted” label sometimes stuck, even though they included plenty of students who didn’t score in the 90th percentile or above on the city’s gifted and talented test.

“In the neighborhood’s mind, it was 139’s special gifted program,” a mother of a second-grade SOAR student said.

Angelique LeDoux, who runs the organization Parents of Accelerated Learners, said she recognized that the situation at P.S. 139 was not the typical model for gifted education in the city. But advocates of gifted and talented programs will still be watching the school’s future closely, she said.

“What this did when I read about it was raise my eyebrows, and lot of people’s in this space, about what this means for gifted and talented education,” she said.

Those concerned have little to go on, for now. In her first weeks as chancellor, Carmen Fariña has said little about gifted students, though she was a deputy chancellor when the standardized gifted screening was implemented and eliminated the gifted program as principal of P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side. De Blasio has also not emphasized the issue.

Meanwhile, McDonald and the teachers at P.S. 139 will soon have to begin planning for a kindergarten class without internal divisions.

“I think in an ideal world, providing services in heterogenous classrooms and catering instruction to kids’ individual needs would be the best way to do not just gifted education but education at large,” Teachers College professor James Borlan said. “Saying that and actually making that happen are two different things, though.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”