Gaps in gifted

New York City gifted programs show progress towards modest student diversity goals

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Some of New York City’s starkly segregated gifted programs are showing promise when it comes to meeting new diversity goals, according to city numbers released Friday.

But those goals, and the scale of the city’s integration efforts, are still modest in the face of the glaring underrepresentation of students in gifted programs who are poor, of color, homeless, or learning English as a new language. One school, for example, was able to meet its target by offering six seats to poor students, out of 49 that were available.

Six gifted programs have joined the city’s Diversity in Admissions initiative, which allows schools to set-aside seats for needy students. All of the programs except one met their targets for admissions offers, according to new data. Though the students have been offered admission, it remains to be seen whether they will enroll.

“We are working to make gifted and talented programs more accessible for students and families across the city,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen said in an emailed statement.

Gifted enrollment is almost a reverse image of the city’s demographics: Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of enrollment in gifted classes, but they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide. Students are admitted based on test scores, which most take when they are about 4 years old.

Matt Gonzales, a school integration advocate with the nonprofit Appleseed, said that set-asides will do little to spur integration as long as the city sticks to its admissions test for gifted, which few children in poor districts take or do well on. He said it’s time to rethink whether the city should have separate gifted programs at all.

“There’s been over a decade of efforts to reform and to shift, to tinker,” he said. “None of those have ever really made a significant change.”

Some programs are starting their integration efforts small. P.S. 77 Lower Lab School set-aside 12 percent of kindergarten seats for students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, a commonly used measure of poverty. That meant that six poor students were offered admission for next year. The Upper East Side school only enrolls gifted students from kindergarten to grade five, and fewer than 6 percent are poor. Out of more than 350 students, only a single one is black.

While schools like Lower Lab are aiming to cultivate a more diverse student body, others have used the Diversity in Admissions initiative to preserve it. That may be the case at TAG Young Scholars in Harlem, which set aside 40 percent of admissions offers for kindergarten students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. As a citywide gifted school, TAG requires top test scores on the gifted test, and its enrollment of poor students has dipped in the last five years — from almost 53 percent poor students to about 39 percent. Out of 50 admissions offers, 20 went to poor students.

The only school that didn’t meet its goal was P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente, which is part of a districtwide effort on the Lower East Side to integrate elementary schools. The District 1 school is aiming to enroll a less needy student population, and offer 67 percent of seats to students who are poor, live in temporary housing, or are learning English — in line with the district average.

But all of the its offers for the gifted program in kindergarten went to students who meet those criteria.

Naomi Peña, a parent on the Community Education Council in District 1, said it has been a challenge to convince a wider range of parents to consider the school. It serves a disproportionate share of homeless students, but has recently posted impressive test score gains and has a loyal following of parents.

“It’s just getting parents to look at the school. It’s frustrating because it sits in a location near public housing, and people have these preconceived notions,” she said. “Once they go, they love it.”

Below is a breakdown of how many students applied to gifted programs in each district for next year.

Since the districts vary widely in size, we compared the number of applicants with the overall kindergarten enrollment in each district last year. That gives us an estimate of the share of students vying for gifted programs in each district. So, only 1 percent of all kindergartners applied for a gifted program in District 10 in the Bronx, but more than 17 percent of kindergartners applied for a gifted program in District 2, which spans Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side.

An important caveat about these numbers: The share may be a little off, since they are based on last year’s kindergarten enrollment data. The education department expects fewer kindergartners to enroll in the next school year — but those figures aren’t available yet.

We also included the poverty rate of all students in each district to compare how participation in gifted programs varies based on a student’s likely economic status (a breakdown of poverty rate among only kindergarten students wasn’t readily available.) As you can see, many of the poorest districts have the fewest gifted applicants, while some of the most affluent have among the most applicants.

* The share of program applicants represents the percentage of kindergarten students in the district who applied to a gifted program.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”