sorting the students

Fewer children make gifted cut for a second year, while inequities persist

The share of children qualifying for seats in the city’s gifted programs fell slightly for a second year following a change meant to both reduce the influence on test preparation in gifted admissions and improve the diversity of admitted students.

But most of the eligible children continued to come from affluent school districts compared to the city’s poorest districts, according to data that the Department of Education released on Monday.

City officials informed the families of 9,099 children that they are eligible to apply to one of the city’s district or citywide gifted and talented programs. That’s just under 25 percent of all students who took screening exams this winter seeking entry into the advanced classes, which admits students in kindergarten through third grade.

The passing rate is down from 32 percent two years ago, when the city added a new non-verbal test and decreased the weight of a verbal test that had previously counted for a majority of a student’s score. Last year’s screening weighed a student’s verbal and non-verbal skills equally, and just 26 percent of children were eligible. This year, no changes were made.

As usual, the most test-takers and the best passing rates came from school districts with more affluent enclaves. In Districts 2 and 3, which includes the Upper East and West Sides and much of Manhattan below 59th Street, 2,122 children — or 43 percent of those screened — hit the eligibility bar. Both districts have among the smallest shares of low-income students than any of the city’s 32 districts.

Conversely, a total of 357 students living in the city’s eight poorest districts — which include neighborhoods in Bushwick, South Bronx, Brownsville, East Harlem, and East New York — met the standards.  That represented just 11 percent of all students who took the exam, two and a half times under the city average.

“It’s critical that every student gets a fair shot at these unique programs, and that the Gifted and Talented test is accessible to all our students and their families while maintaining the same high standards,” said Department of Education spokesman Harry Hartfield.

The slight decline could have been in part because fewer students, particularly from some of the higher income districts, took the exam than in previous years.

The results came as education officials said the department would retain Pearson as its testing vendor for the gifted exams for at least another year. The testing company had a $5.5 million contract that runs until the end of this school year and officials had indicated they were looking to end the relationship after it botched scoring of the city’s 2013 gifted exams.

Families whose children are eligible now have until April 23 to apply for a slot, officials said. More than 2,000 students scored in the 97th percentile, meaning they can apply to one of six elite citywide gifted and talented programs; the remaining children can apply to less competitive programs in their home districts.

Meeting the eligibility bar is no guarantee of admission, however. Last year, only 60 percent of eligible students were offered a gifted seat.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Carmen Fariña has sought to downplay the allure of the city’s gifted programs during her tenure, saying that she hopes to make local neighborhood schools more attractive for parents to attend. The department’s spokesman emphasized that message again on Monday.

“Gifted and Talented Programs are just one of many high-quality elementary school options available to families across the City,” Harfield said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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