In one elementary school, a researcher finds sharply divergent views on its gifted program

New York City’s gifted and talented programs can look like a reverse image of the school system: While seven in 10 city students are black or Hispanic, only three in 10 students in those selective programs are.

Researcher Allison Roda dove deep into one elementary school to find out why. She spent three years conducting 52 in-depth interviews with New York City parents, and the result is her new book, “Inequity in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation,” a nuanced picture of the cultural divides that can underlie those programs.

Roda found the school’s white parents grappling with a desire for diversity at their children’s schools, while not wanting to sacrifice a pathway to a prestigious middle or high school. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic parents didn’t see G&T programs as such a clear pathway to later success — and few parents in either set thought students in the programs were truly “gifted.”

Chalkbeat talked to Roda about her book and its implications for the city’s ongoing debate about school segregation. (The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

What got you interested in this topic?
I did prior research on this topic with my adviser at Teachers College, Amy Stuart Wells. We looked at school choice and at parents, how satisfied they were with school choice options. G&T was brought up and how uncomfortable they were with that. When they went on G&T school tours, you could just easily see that one was G&T and one was “gen ed” because of the color of the children’s skin in the classroom.

And another thing was just how segregated their options are, and how they wish there would be more integrated school options but there really isn’t a lot. One parent said if you only have segregation, you choose segregation. So they were kind of stuck with that.

On how the white parents viewed school diversity at the school she focused on
The takeaway is really that they’re conflicted between their beliefs and exposing their children to diversity. That’s why they chose to live in a diverse city in the first place.

But when they are in the process of choosing schools, really their only options are segregated options, and so they’re kind of caught in the middle of their beliefs and what their choices are.

On how the black and Latino parents viewed gifted and talented programs
I interviewed nine black and Latino parents who had experience in the general education program. They overwhelmingly thought that gifted and talented in the school was used as a tool for segregation and for parents to have this kind of better-than status in the school.

I’ll give an example. Every year the PTA asks all of the parents to donate $2,500, basically to pay for the teaching assistant salaries in each classroom, and that’s a lot of money. For lower-income parents, they weren’t able to pay that and they didn’t really agree with paying that much money for a public school, even if they had the money. So because all of the white parents basically paid, there was a perception that they paid for the teaching assistant salaries because they could afford that and they walked around like they were better in the school.

On why black and Latino parents didn’t necessarily want to get into G&T programs
Another thing was two of the black parents had children in the gifted program. It was hard, I think, for the student and family to be the only black child or parent in that classroom. They didn’t want to be the only person of color in the gifted classroom. That’s another reason why they didn’t want to be in that program.

The other thing is that black and Latino parents, they didn’t really buy into the gifted label, because they know all the white parents were prepping their children to take the test and spending a lot of money for test prep. So for all of those reasons, they were not re-testing or striving to get into the program like the white parents were.

So why did the white parents care so much about getting into G&T programs?
The main reason is for them to get on the right track or pathway to the better middle schools and to the better high schools.

What attracts them to the G&T program is that it is seen as a feeder to the gifted middle school program, and that’s a feeder into the better high schools. This is a really high-stakes situation for some parents. Especially parents who live in neighborhoods where their neighborhood school wasn’t an option for them, so gifted and talented was a way out.

Why don’t the black and Latino parents see G&T as a “track” like white parents do?
There were some barriers to getting information about just the school tours and the options that they have. One of the Latino mothers that I interviewed, she said she was the only Latino mother at a middle school tour, and she said this area is not all Italians and Irish. It’s mixed. There’s a lot of Spanish here. She just thought that it was not publicizing the information.

The gen-ed parents I interviewed, the black and Latino parents, they just thought they went to their zoned school. They didn’t really know there were other options out there. Some of them did, but they just said if you’re working and you don’t have a lot parents to talk to, if your preschool isn’t telling you, it’s just harder to know.

Are the G&T programs actually better?
[Parents] didn’t really see a lot of difference between the two programs academically. Both programs have the standard DOE curriculum. They said in the gifted program they might move faster. They might go into more depth into certain topics.

There’s less differentiation because [students] all took that test and technically passed it, but those [gifted and talented] teachers will have to differentiate because some of those students were getting prepped for the test and it wasn’t a reflection of their intelligence.

On “giftedness”
I realized the majority of white parents didn’t think the G&T tests that the DOE offers adequately reflects giftedness. They relate it more to their background and knowing how to work the system. The majority of parents wouldn’t call it gifted even if they’re in the program. They would say they are bright or they’re smart and they have the background from going to preschool and the exposure to everything that they’ve been exposed to before.

On the stakes attached to the tests
There’s kind of this underlying uneasiness about all this pressure they’re placing on their children to perform. One mother said that getting her child into gifted and talented was saving her half a million on private school tuition, so it’s really high stakes.

What are the solutions?
I kind of lay out two options in my book. The first is, take G&T program and try to identify a more diverse student population [to qualify]. I think the DOE is trying to do that by switching the test to make it harder to prep for.

My suggestion would be to use multiple criteria, and waiting to test until children are older, so it doesn’t reflect their advantaged background and they have some type of formal schooling before they are tested, and providing outreach to lower-income families about the process.

The second is to phase out G&T programs and to create more integrated school settings.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.