First Person

The city’s gifted education system needs to shift, one school at a time

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.

Have other ideas about the future of gifted and talented education in the city? Let us know here, and sign up for our morning newsletter for more news and viewpoints.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.