I visited BELL Academy M.S. 294 in Queens on a Wednesday morning in May to see a special breed of education in action. In one room, I watched a group of three students photograph a miniature scene made up of Legos and paper cutouts—then make a slight adjustment to the scene—and photograph again. Several thousand frames later, they will have completed a stop-motion animation video. Across the hall, a student showed off a painting she made to raise awareness about bullying, inspired by the social commentary in the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In the hallway, students walked by with a tablet taking pictures for the school newspaper.
As an education policy researcher at The Century Foundation, I study the academic and social benefits of school integration. I examine research, conduct interviews, and visit schools to identify promising practices that promote diversity and inclusion in schools. I came to BELL in search of a more equitable approach to gifted education, and found a model I think other city schools should examine closely.
New York City’s gifted and talented programs have a long history of creating socioeconomic and racial segregation within schools. But BELL Academy offers a promising alternative: extending enrichment opportunities to all students.
Under the city’s current G&T system, screening happens at a young age—typically preschool—when children’s educational opportunities are largely a product of their socioeconomic status. Students are admitted based on scores from a standardized test, giving a leg up to families that can afford test prep and push for re-testing. And G&T programs typically serve students in self-contained classrooms, separating them from their peers.
According to a recent report from New York Appleseed, about 70 percent of kindergartners citywide in 2011 were black or Latino, while more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted and talented programs were white or Asian. Wealthier community school districts consistently have the most G&T placements. Schools with G&T programs may look racially and socioeconomically diverse while classrooms are highly segregated.
BELL Academy takes a different approach.
BELL was founded seven years ago by a team led by Cheryl Quatrano and Melinda Spataro, energetic veteran educators who worked in the city’s G&T programs for a number of years—and fought to make them more diverse. Quatrano and Spataro started BELL Academy based on an approach of “gifted education for all,” using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model developed by University of Connecticut professors Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis.
BELL is not a school for “gifted” students, and there are no screening criteria for admission. But all students at BELL receive tailored instruction designed around the core principles of gifted education: identifying students’ talents, enhancing curricula, differentiating assignments to ability, and providing enrichment opportunities.
The film, art, and journalism projects I saw unfolding were part of the school’s “enrichment clusters,” elective classes that give all students the chance to engage in in-depth projects outside of the regular curriculum that fit their interests and learning styles. In other schools, this style of education might be reserved for only the “best and brightest,” but the premise of SEM—backed by years of research—is that it is possible to expand enrichment programs to all students without sacrificing quality of instruction.
BELL teachers also use SEM as a way of modifying the regular classroom instruction to meet the individual needs of a wide range of students. All BELL students start the year by taking a survey of interests and talents that, when combined with academic data, gives teachers a good idea of how to engage and challenge each student. An online platform allows teachers to provide students with enrichment materials on engaging subjects at just the right reading level to challenge them, whether they’re reading six levels above their grade or three levels below.
The SEM approach also means that teachers are constantly looking for opportunities to extend students’ knowledge beyond the classroom. Principal David Abbot explained how a visit from Chancellor Carmen Fariña earlier this year turned into an opportunity for two students interested in animal rights to write persuasive essays on the proposed ban on horse-drawn carriages, which Fariña delivered to Mayor de Blasio.
Fariña is no stranger to SEM. Back when she was principal of P.S. 6 in the Upper East Side, she ended the school’s popular G&T track in favor of a schoolwide approach. During her tenure as schools chancellor, she has expressed skepticism about the current G&T model and said she favors “neighborhood schools that provide gifted practices to all students.”
But implementing SEM in today’s education climate is challenging. An effective SEM program requires teacher training, resources for enrichment supplies and opportunities, and small class sizes. And with schools under immense pressure to improve test scores, adopting a school model that takes time away from the core curriculum to nurture talents and promote inquiry can be a hard sell—particularly when all students, not just top scorers, participate in enrichment.
Making any changes to G&T programs is also a politically tricky proposition that requires going up against a vocal group of largely middle-class parents who support the status quo. Despite her support for SEM, Fariña said in a recent interview that she has no plans to change the current system.
In the meantime, the best chance for changing gifted education and expanding SEM in the city is one school at a time. During the seven years that it’s been open, BELL has shown consistent academic success and booming popularity. Quatrano and Spataro have gone on to start Veritas Academy, the first high school in the world to use SEM, which opened in Flushing, Queens, last fall. And over in Park Slope, Brooklyn, two schools recently ended their G&T programs over concerns of segregation.
So far, these experiments are succeeding. Maybe more will follow.