gifted moves

Among New York City’s deeply segregated gifted programs, one Brooklyn school aims for greater diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry learn to read number lines.

Families from across New York City flock to Brooklyn School of Inquiry in Gravesend — the kind of school where parents raise enough money to pay for extra helpers in most classrooms and a multi-million dollar STEM lab is being built on the roof.

But for all the gifted and talented school offers, Principal Donna Taylor says there is one thing lacking: a student body that reflects the diversity of the city.

Taylor hopes to make a dent in that. Starting next fall, BSI will become the first citywide gifted and talented school to experiment with new admissions policies to promote integration. The Department of Education has allowed the highly sought-after school to set aside 40 percent of its kindergarten seats specifically for low-income children.

“I think that was just what we needed,” Taylor said.

In joining the city’s “Diversity in Admissions” program, Taylor is trying to address striking differences between her school and others. Citywide, about 77 percent of students are poor and almost 70 percent are black or Hispanic. Last year, BSI’s poverty rate was 23 percent, and less than 10 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The disparity is not unique to BSI, or to gifted education. Citywide, about 73 percent of gifted students are white or Asian, and the poverty rate averages around 43 percent.

There are almost no students who are learning English, have special needs or are in temporary housing in the city’s gifted programs. Put together, they make up less than 10 percent.

“What we have right now is something we should be ashamed of,” said James Borland, who directs gifted education programs at Teachers College Columbia University.

While most gifted programs are housed within traditional schools, BSI is one of five citywide schools that enroll gifted children exclusively. The citywide schools are some of the hardest to get into, essentially requiring four-year-olds to land a near-perfect score on the standardized test used to determine who is “gifted.”

Districts used to be able to set their own admissions criteria for gifted programs. That changed in 2007, when the city standardized entry based on test scores, in part to increase diversity. A non-verbal test, also intended to address inequities, was added in 2012. Yet today’s gifted programs remain segregated.

That isn’t surprising since test scores are closely linked to socioeconomic status, said Allison Roda, who spent years studying New York City’s system and wrote a book titled “Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs.”

“You’re never going to integrate gifted and talented classrooms that way,” she said.

The current administration has tried its own methods to diversify gifted education. Perhaps the most sweeping effort was the launch of new gifted programs in four districts in Brooklyn and the Bronx that had gone years without. Those programs started this year, admitting third-grade students rather than kindergartners and using measures other than the traditional gifted tests to decide admission, including grades and teacher recommendations. Both moves could level the playing field by making it less likely that students test into gifted programs based on the advantages they bring from home.

In those new programs, 70 percent of students are low-income, 49 percent are black and 39 percent are Hispanic, according to the Department of Education.

Officials recently announced the more expansive third-grade admissions criteria would apply to another school: P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side, which has been embroiled in a long-standing rezoning debate.

Students at P.S. 191 are largely black, Hispanic and poor — and gifted programs are often seen as a way to help integrate schools. Roda criticized that approach, saying gifted programs just lead to segregation within school buildings.

“It is a way to attract white, higher-income families to a school. But once you do that, it’s like gentrifying a school,” she said. “You walk down the hallway, and you can tell which classroom is gifted and talented and which classroom is general education.”

The Department of Education did not make anyone available for comment on gifted education issues, despite repeated requests. In an email, a spokesman wrote: “We’re committed to increasing diversity and expanding high-quality elementary education for students and families – including through Gifted & Talented programming.”

Recent efforts, however, appear to have fallen short. According to city data, recorded in annual school diversity reports, the percentage of black and Hispanic and low-income students enrolled in gifted education has remained about the same over the last two years.

Borland said the city could instead move back toward allowing districts more flexibility in how they decide who’s “gifted.” Instead of one test cut-off score, students would be admitted based on how they compared to their local peers.

“That makes sense because you need a different program based on how you compare to kids in your class,” and not, for example, students in another borough, Borland said.

But ultimately, he said, “I would not base admissions on tests.”

The new enrollment policy at BSI is likely to have a small effect — one that could take years to play out. Because siblings of current students get priority in enrollment, precious few kindergarten seats are open in any given year. And even if BSI meets its enrollment target of 40 percent low-income, it would still be far below the city average for student poverty.

But Taylor says the school has to start somewhere. She admits some parents have questioned whether the initiative would impact performance.

Her response: “Sometimes the parents don’t have time to advocate for their kids, but that doesn’t mean their kids can’t do as well.”

Other parents have welcomed the change, and started an information campaign to encourage more families in the community to sign their children up for testing.

“This is a big deal,” said Sara Mogulescu, the parent of two students at BSI. “It’s important to a number of us.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

College Access

Michigan is struggling to put kids through college. So why is a promising solution stuck in first gear?

As an ambitious high school freshman in Illinois, Jasmin Wilson had a simple goal: rack up enough college credits to earn a two-year degree before she was 18.

Then her family moved to Michigan, and now that goal is out of the question. A tangle of state laws makes it hard for high schoolers to take classes at local colleges, an approach known to boost college graduation rates, even as lawmakers worry that too few Michiganders hold college degrees.

Those laws mean that students like Wilson cannot get an associate degree before graduation, unlike their peers in neighboring states.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, now an 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “There shouldn’t be a limit on how many courses you can take. I feel like they’re limiting students.”

A growing body of research suggests that the standard U.S. educational timeline — four years of high school followed, ideally, by four years of college — is badly out of date. So-called dual enrollment provides a major boost to rates of college enrollment, college and high school graduation, and even students’ academic performance in high school, according to a review of the evidence by federal education officials.

Many districts are recognizing the appeal of dual enrollment. Earlier this week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to help more students take courses at a local community college.

But Michigan puts unusually strict limits on dual enrollment, capping the number of college courses students can take while attending high school at 10. The availability of such programs across the state is also limited by a funding system that requires Michigan’s already cash-strapped school districts to pay for dual enrollment courses, leading to gaps in access across the state.

Some education leaders are urging lawmakers to make dual enrollment easier.

“There’s a lot of positive things here,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Directors, referring to dual enrollment. “We haven’t in this state caught up to the rest of the nation.”

Although the number of participants in Michigan has grown in recent years, the rate of dual enrollment remains lower than advocates would like, with fewer than 1 in 6 Michigan high schoolers taking classes for college credit, Miller said. (Thousands more take Advanced Placement classes, which can also lead to college credit.)

More than 2 million U.S. high schoolers participate today, including 81,000 students in Michigan, and that number is growing. Early middle colleges — high schools that offer college courses in-house — have also expanded.

Yet Dave Dugger, executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, worries that the number of students enrolling in dual enrollment in Michigan could be slowing down.

Although some influential policymakers have expressed interest in dual enrollment, the idea hasn’t developed the popular support necessary to drive a major change to the deeply ingrained timeline on which American education is based.

“We’re a time-based system,” he said. “Everyone filters education through their educational experience, which tends to be 30 years behind the times.”

Dugger has spent the last 25 years creating dual enrollment programs and helping educational organizations build their own. He says it’s just common sense to allow motivated high school students to take the more challenging coursework offered in college.

And as advocates often point out, there are plenty of other perks.

By accumulating college credits in high school, students can save money on tuition, no small matter at a time when Michigan families are paying more than ever for college. The classes prepare them for the fast pace of college work. And crucially, they shorten the path to a college degree, increasing the odds that students will end up with a credential.

That fact alone might be enough to win a powerful ally in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who focused her State of the State address on Michigan’s relatively low rate of college completion.

“Dual enrollment becomes a contributor to increasing education attainment in the state,” said Doug Ross, Whitmer’s newly appointed senior advisor on higher education attainment and economic development. “As the full strategy is laid out for moving from roughly 43 percent [of Michiganders age 25 to 65 with a college degree] to 60 percent in the next decade, dual enrollment is an issue that will come on the table early in the process.”

The cap was put in place in 2005 to ensure that school districts wouldn’t be forced to pay too much for college courses. Districts don’t have to promote dual enrollment, but they can’t opt out of it, either.

The legislature has shown little interest in lifting the cap — the last effort to do so passed the state senate last year but did not pass the house. No bills introduced in the legislature this session would lift limits on dual enrollment, Miller said.

The problem that the cap sets out to solve could be fixed, in theory, with a carrot. Miller says the state should send extra funding to school districts who otherwise would have trouble making the case for dual enrollment.

But that proposal could run into trouble in the statehouse. The Republican legislature has voiced skepticism about new spending, while the Democratic governor is trying to find revenue for several major initiatives at once.

Sarah Anthony, a newly elected Democratic state representative from Lansing (her district does not include Michigan State University), is tired of waiting for people to grasp the stakes of this debate.

While lawmakers fail to come up with a solution, she said, far too few students are completing college. The effects are especially pronounced on students who, like her, are the first in their family to attend college.

“As you sit in some of these rooms, sometimes you have to step back and say, who’s looking out for students and families?” she said.