By the numbers

More gifted programs join New York City’s school diversity efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City will expand its efforts to diversify its starkly segregated Gifted and Talented programs, education department officials announced Tuesday.

Starting next year, two more gifted programs will join 42 other schools that have already changed their admissions policies in an attempt to enroll a more diverse group of students.

P.S. 11 the William T. Harris School in Chelsea will reserve 30 percent of its open gifted seats for kindergarten and first-grade students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch based on their family income, are homeless or live in public housing. At TAG Young Scholars Academy, 40 percent of seats will be set-aside for kindergarten students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The addition of TAG is significant: As one of only five citywide gifted schools, students need a higher score to qualify for admissions, making those schools even more coveted. It joins Brooklyn School of Inquiry, another citywide gifted program that recently became a part of the city’s diversity efforts.

Diversity in the city’s gifted programs has been a challenge in New York City. Enrollment in gifted programs is almost the reverse of the overall demographics in the school system: Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

The city is also increasing the number of school districts that have gifted programs starting in third grade, rather than kindergarten, and use criteria other than test scores for admissions. The new districts are: 9 in South Bronx, 19 in East New York and 29 in northeast Queens. Experts say those changes are likely to make admissions more fair, since test scores for incoming kindergartners are more likely to reflect advantages in their childhood — such as their parents’ ability to pay for test prep.

But advocates who see gifted programs as crucial pipeline to the city’s specialized schools — crown jewels of the high school system that are themselves highly segregated — have questioned the wisdom of waiting to enroll some students in gifted program, while others get an earlier start.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” asked a recent report by a taskforce convened by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

The department also released figures that show the number of students taking entrance exams for the coveted programs remained about steady, along with the number of kids who earned a qualifying score. About 28 percent of test-takers scored high enough to apply for a seat, down just one percentage point from the previous year.

Overall, city figures show that more than 32,500 children took the gifted tests this year. That is a slight decrease compared to last year, when about 35,000 were tested. Officials attribute the decline to an overall lower number of incoming kindergarteners.

Once again, more affluent districts saw a greater number of test takers. In District 32 in Bushwick, only 159 students took the exams and 23 earned a qualifying score. (There are more than 12,000 students overall in the district.) Meanwhile, District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, had almost 1,400 test-takers. Almost 600 qualified for gifted, and the district enrolls a total of almost 23,000 students.

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.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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