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.


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.