the one that got away

Prestigious and public, the Hunter College schools charge hefty fees and admit few poor students

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Your first shot at getting in comes when you’re four years old.

You have to live in Manhattan, speak English, and have $350 for an IQ test. If you’re invited back, a team of consultants will observe you in a classroom setting and make the final call.

You get a second chance several years later, assuming you’ve aced the state tests in fifth grade and know to apply for a high school seat in sixth grade. Then, your score on the school’s admissions test will decide your fate.

That’s how admissions works at Hunter College Campus schools, which serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Though the schools are operated by the city’s public university system, not its education department, they are public schools. And for about 1,600 students at a time, they provide what is considered one of the best public educations in New York City.

The schools look very little like the city its students live in, though, a fact that has been true for many years. And as New York City engages in a lively debate about the lack of diversity at eight elite city high schools — with Mayor Bill de Blasio calling the lack of black and Hispanic students there “a monumental injustice” — Hunter’s disparities in some cases are far starker.

At the specialized high schools, 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students last year, and nearly half of the students attending are poor. But just 7 percent of Hunter high school students are black and Hispanic, and only 9 percent come from low-income families. At Hunter’s elementary school, less than 3 percent of students come from low-income families.

Still, Hunter has flown under the radar. The schools have avoided the spotlight for a constellation of reasons, including their unique governance structure and the fact that their admissions numbers are not released annually by the city, something that has drawn special attention to demographics at the specialized schools.

“There’s no question that this is another crown jewel when it comes to public high school in New York City,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. As for Hunter and CUNY, he said, “I think it’s a shame that they have not chimed in.”

Debra Wexler, a spokesperson for Hunter College, said the school has engaged in extensive outreach to find talented students from across the city. Hunter officials also note that multiracial students make up 18 percent of the high school, and that poverty is tough to track, since some families fail to turn in their free and reduced-priced lunch forms, the school’s standard means for collecting information about family income.

“The Hunter College Campus Schools are designed to serve intellectually gifted students,” Wexler said. “Those students exist in every community, and it’s our job to find them, so we have spent the past several years investing heavily in outreach and engagement strategies to encourage bright students from all backgrounds to apply.”

Officials at Hunter said their outreach is working and said they expect a more diverse kindergarten class next year.

But as officials and parents continue to examine equity, diversity, and segregation in the nation’s largest school district, observers wonder if Hunter has an obligation to more forcefully address the fairness of its admissions policies.

“Hunter is another one of these private schools masquerading as a public school,” said Lazar Treschan, a Hunter graduate who has studied New York City high school admissions and works at the Community Service Society. While it’s good to see that the school moving in the right direction, he said, “It has no business being a public school in New York City with those kind of disparities.”

***

The Hunter College Campus Schools have been prestigious bastions of public education for gifted New York City students since the mid-1950s. The schools boast a string of notable alumni, including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star running for governor of New York. The high school also routinely sends about a quarter of its graduating class to Ivy League schools, MIT, or Stanford.

The schools also have a long history of grappling with a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, although the disparities are worse today than they have been in the past. In 1995, the incoming class of seventh graders was about 18 percent black and Hispanic, according to the New York Times. In 2017, 9 percent of seventh graders were black or Hispanic.

Fred McIntosh, the former director of admissions at Prep for Prep, which helps students of color get into private schools, took the Hunter entrance exam in the early 1980s. He said he didn’t know anyone who prepared seriously for the test, and thinks the lack of test prep and a program that admitted some poor students who just missed the cutoff score helped make his class more diverse than today’s student body.

(Hunter officials said they don’t know of such a program, which is mentioned in a report created by a school committee in the early 2000s, and they don’t have information about why it might have been phased out.)

“It was much more racially and ethnically diverse, but it was also very socioeconomically diverse,” said McIntosh, who is black. “That’s one of the things that I learned going to Hunter. I thought all of the kids were wealthy and that was not true.”

But at least as far back at 1997, faculty members have been devising ways to boost diversity at the school. In a report from that year, a committee on cultural diversity at Hunter College High School recommended a full review of the school’s admissions policies, investigating whether the school could eliminate the admissions testing fee, and developing an anti-discrimination statement.

Several years later, Glenn Kissack, then a math teacher at the school, participated in another review of admissions. After months of studying the small number of “feeder schools” that often produce Hunter students and looking into the expensive test prep available for the exam, the committee suggested potentially reserving more seats for poor students and selecting students based on more than just a single test score.

The committee submitted the report, and months went by with no word from the Hunter administration, Kissack said.

“We could have done something else with our time,” Kissack said. “It gathered dust and didn’t matter.”

Hunter officials would not specifically address most of the recommendations in the reports, but said that the school has been engaged in many discussions over the years about improving diversity. Hunter has implemented many recommendations over the years, they said, including creating a Dean of Diversity position in 2002 and raising private funds for student outreach efforts.

The conflict came to a head in 2010 when the high school faculty selected Justin Hudson, one of the school’s few black students, to address his class at graduation. Hudson tackled the school’s demographics head-on in his speech.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, according to an article in the New York Times, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Kevin Park was a junior at Hunter College high school in 2010, when he joined in the standing ovation for Hudson’s speech. He remembers that there were more students named “Kevin” in his grade than there were black students, and felt Hunter lacked faculty and classes that represented Asian students like himself.

After the speech, Park and some classmates created a skit about what it was like to be a black student at Hunter. It depicted assuming college acceptances came easier to black students and how being the only black student in a class can deter speaking up in class, he said.

“That sparked a discussion for a while,” Park said, “but it didn’t necessarily translate into concrete steps or policies.”

Even some of Hunter’s notable alumni have called out the school for its lack of diversity. MSNBC host Chris Hayes uses Hunter as an example of an admissions process that is rigged for the wealthy. Lin-Manuel Miranda recently tweeted a picture at his Hunter College High School reunion with a friend, and said the two of them were two of just five Latino kids in their elementary school grade.

Hunter College officials say that they are confident in their existing process, but are looking for ways to expand the pool of students who apply. At the elementary school level, they have hosted open houses and attended private or selective school admissions fairs, focusing on areas with a concentration of underrepresented students like Harlem or Washington Heights. As a result, Hunter’s kindergarten class is projected to be 22 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 18 percent multiracial in the next school year, they said.

For the high school, they have worked to better notify students who qualify to take the Hunter entrance exam, including by mailing information to parents through the city’s education department. They have also done outreach at the Success Academy charter network, and have seen applications double from those schools.

“Those efforts are bearing fruit,” Wexler said.

The high school has also seen a slow uptick in the number of black and Hispanic students attending over the last decade, though the numbers remain relatively tiny — 7 percent of students in 2017-18.

About two-thirds of the city’s public-school students are black or Hispanic.

Officials at Hunter said they would like to do more outreach but that they are stymied by the fact that the education department will not share contact information for eligible middle schoolers. The city says it is constrained by federal privacy law, but sends an invitation to take the test to all eligible students.

Officials at the mayor’s office did not specifically address Hunter’s admissions policies, but said the mayor is looking to expand diversity initiatives beyond specialized high schools. They also said he believes schools should reflect the diversity of the city.

***

One of the reasons Hunter stands apart — even from other elite New York City schools that select students based on ability — is that its sorting process can essentially guarantee a four-year-old a spot at one of the city’s most sought-after high schools.

That was the experience of Andy McCord’s daughter, who took and passed Hunter’s elementary school tests more than a decade ago at the age of three.

It’s hard to say exactly what the testers found since the exam took place away from parents, said McCord, who is now the chair of programming and recruitment at the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative, which tutors underrepresented students vying for seats at the city’s selective high schools. (The exam still takes place separate from parents.)

McCord remembers his daughter telling him that the psychologist had showed her a picture of a person walking a fish on a leash, and she was able to say it should be a dog. In the next phase of the test, where she was observed by a team of adults, his daughter remembers playing with another kid.

Based on those experiences, she got into Hunter elementary school, stayed through high school, and is now a student at Harvard. (Students who finish sixth grade at the school earn a seat in the high school, though some families will be asked beforehand to find a different place for their child, officials said.)

Hunter no longer tests children at age three; instead the process is for four-year-olds. But the basic idea — that based on an IQ test and an observation at a very young age, the school can identify gifted children — is something Hunter stands by. Officials said the Stanford-Binet V exam it uses is the oldest and most widely used measure of aptitude in the country and noted that they consult with experts to ensure their admissions standards are appropriate.

Others, however, say testing such young children can miss their academic potential, capturing wealth and privilege instead.

“There’s just a really strong argument to be made that when you’re testing four-year-olds, at that age, an awful lot of what you’re measuring seems to be about the social advantage that students have had up to that point as opposed to innate potential,” said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on school integration.

And tacking on a $350 price tag is almost certain to exclude more families.

“Even in the best case scenario, it’s hard to imagine the admissions process, as it exists now, actually finding and serving gifted low-income students,” Potter said.

Hunter has begun outreach to some Head Start programs, which provide federally funded pre-K, and waives fees for families there. Officials at Hunter also said they would work with other families who couldn’t pay. But they said they didn’t know how many Head Start students had been admitted, and didn’t track how many students had gotten the fee reduced. The price, they said, reflects the psychologist’s time.

For some parents, however, those explanations provide little solace — especially when their child isn’t admitted. One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she “scrimped and saved” to afford the psychologist’s test several years ago after her husband was laid off. When the test day came, a stranger took her daughter into a room. A few days later, she was told her daughter had not passed.

Feeling like she had lost hundreds of dollars, and not knowing why, was difficult to take, she said. “You have no idea what was said because you weren’t in the room with the psychologist. It was just total agony.”

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Jennifer and Jayden Tolliver stand outside of a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. Jayden just missed the cutoff to get into Hunter this year.

There’s another way into Hunter, though, for students who don’t win seats before losing baby teeth.

Students from across the city who score well on their fifth-grade state tests can sit for an entrance exam in sixth grade, which includes an essay. That looks a lot like the one-test admissions method currently under fire at the city’s eight specialized high schools.

The mayor and schools chancellor have both criticized the Specialized High School Admissions Test as a blunt instrument that excludes gifted students from all over the city. Their criticism has broken open a debate about how to select students for seats at coveted city schools. Members of the Asian community in particular have defended the test as an objective marker of talent and hard work that gives immigrant families a shot to send students to top schools.

Some make similar arguments about the Hunter entrance exam. Standing in the courtyard at New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, a gifted elementary school in Manhattan, Cecilia Feliciano said her son just passed Hunter’s test and will be attending the school next year for seventh grade.

Feliciano, who lives in Queens, said she is an immigrant from the Philippines who couldn’t afford test prep, so she downloaded materials and worked with her son to study for the exam. The test allowed her son to compete on an equal footing with more affluent students from around the city, she said.

“It means a lot to me to have have an equalizer, but you have to work hard,” Feliciano said. “It takes a lot of work, passion, love.”

But like with the SHSAT, preparation for the Hunter exam is costly for many families. A test prep class for the Hunter exam in Manhattan can cost $3,000. Some private tutors who specialize in the Hunter exam charge up to $350 per hour.

And unlike the SHSAT, which students take in eighth grade, students take the Hunter exam in sixth — well before many students are thinking about high school. That catches many students, like Ethan Moses, now a freshman at Manhattan Village Academy, off guard.

Moses said he heard about the test a couple weeks before it was administered. He figured he would apply the skills he learned at Success Academy, but he didn’t recall any of his classmates making the cut, he said. (Success officials said they do not track how many students are admitted to Hunter.)

“The mail came in out of nowhere and said we were taking the test,” Moses said. “None of us were really prepared.”

Alternatively, even if students know about the test, qualify for it, and can prepare for it, the crux of the problem could be the entrance exam itself, critics say.

The entrance exam is not created by a national testing company, but by teachers at Hunter College High School.

“It’s a home-created test,” said Kissack, the retired math teacher who worked on test questions himself, which means “we have no idea how valid it is.”

Hunter officials defend the test by saying that the school’s results speak for themselves: The school has graduated a number of notable alumni and the test has been consistently able to identify students who excel in Hunter’s rigorous academic environment, they said. They also said the test has been able to consistently find students who are able to excel in Hunter’s challenging environment.

But Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard who has studied standardized testing, says pointing to successful alumni is not a good way to figure out if a test truly measures whether students are gifted. It’s incumbent on schools to figure out if the school is missing good candidates — not just whether the candidates who are selected succeed, he said.

“Are they denying admissions to kids who are lower [test scorers] who would also be equally successful?” Koretz said. “The answer to that question is almost certainly yes,” which means administrators need to be able to justify why their test should be used to select students.

The answer to that question could have mattered a lot to Jayden Tolliver, who is black, on the math team at his middle school in Harlem, and a self-proclaimed “book nerd.”

His fifth-grade state test results qualified him for the Hunter test, and he spent last fall and winter preparing for it through the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative. (Sometimes, his mom said, she could hear him doing math problems in his sleep.)

Hunter told Tolliver that he scored well enough on the multiple choice portion of the test, but his essay wasn’t strong enough to earn a seat at the school.

On a recent afternoon, Tolliver wandered through a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side looking for something to read. He’s disappointed that he didn’t make it into Hunter, but said he’s ready to start thinking about finding another high school to take his love of math.

“I was just born liking this stuff,” he said.

The big sort

Do selective admissions actually help middle schools choose the best students? This Manhattan dad says no.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 recently gathered to learn about the middle school admissions process. Eric Goldberg wants District 2 to end selective admissions methods that many middle schools use determine admissions.

Eric Goldberg wants to change the debate around whether public schools should be allowed to select their students based on test scores, report card grades, and other factors.

A parent leader on the Community Education Council in District 2, Goldberg is proposing a resolution to put a hold on that that practice, known as “screening,” across the district’s middle schools. District 2 stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Many question whether sorting students by academic ability is fair, and critics say it exacerbates segregation. Goldberg’s criticism is different: He questions whether the sorting mechanisms actually work to distinguish among students and pick those with the most academic potential. 

“From the basic design to the implementation, this process is riddled with issues,” he said. “It makes it essentially worthless.”

His resolution would be merely symbolic but would add to the growing criticism of the methods many New York City schools use to select students. Community leaders in one Brooklyn district have called for an end to selective admissions in their middle schools, and Chancellor Richard Carranza recently called screening “antithetical” to public education.

Like other critics of the screening process, Goldberg is worried about whether the current system is equitable. But he also thinks that starting with more basic questions is a better way to convince parents that something has to change.

“We’ve set up this tension between a system that values merit and a system that values diversity,” he said. “But we haven’t asked… is this system actually determining who has merit?”

Goldberg said he has some support from fellow council members, who are expected to vote on the resolution this fall after a series of community discussions. Ultimately, the council doesn’t have the power to change admissions in the district — that’s up to the Department of Education and local school leaders. But parent buy-in has proven integral to pushing integration efforts elsewhere, and a show of support for such a dramatic step could serve as an important signal to city officials.

When talking to Chalkbeat, Goldberg had this to say about the flaws he sees in the system, and what he thinks it will take to accomplish meaningful change.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you proposing for District 2 middle schools?

We would like District 2 to place a moratorium on screening until we can have a full assessment of the process, because our belief is that it is unfair to keep it in place and subject another set of students to a deeply flawed process.

In your view, what are the flaws?

There’s no standardized grading system in place. One school could have a scale of 1 to 4 for grading, another school could have a scale of 1 to 100. There is no oversight in place to ensure that grade distribution within schools, within a classroom, is somewhat standardized — let alone across schools.

If you look at other aspects like testing, it’s clear and it’s known that many students are tutored for the [state] test. It’s clear that these tests were designed as diagnostic assessments rather than assessments to be used for selection. We’ve pushed back on whether these state tests should be used for teacher evaluations, but yet, for some reason, we sit on the sidelines and allow our students to be assessed by them.

If you go to attendance — which to me is probably the most pernicious of all — attendance for 10-year-olds is schools choosing families…For a 10-year-old to get to school on-time, they are fully dependant on their caregiver.

The last area is school-based assessments and interviews. Many of the schools administer their own math or English tests and assessments. But no one has reviewed those tests to make sure that they’re up to standards in terms of being reliable and valid indicators of student performance. Many of these schools also do interviews, but yet, the interviewers have had no training, and there’s no standards in place for how those interviews are run. They don’t have unconscious bias training. And there’s really no transparency around what questions are asked and whether or not they’re valid.

Why are you focusing on whether this process is reliable, rather than on whether it’s fair — as other critics are doing?

There will be a lot of discussion and tension around the rationale for screens and what purpose they serve, around the impact that screens have and whether that impact is fair and equitable. But I think, at the most basic level, we should have more agreement and unanimity to see the flaws in this process. My belief is that as people understand how deeply flawed this process is, that they will take a step back and assess screening as a whole.

So is this just the first step before diving into the bigger question of whether screening is fair?

Those are conversations that we certainly should be having as a school system and as a community. But I think it takes away some of the pressure and high-stakes nature of that conversation if we can get consensus that this system is flawed in terms of its design and implementation, and we should end a flawed system.

District 2 has been debating how to make its schools more diverse for some time now. What have you accomplished so far?  

The way District 2 has made progress is, first, around transparency. The fact that schools are actually sharing (admissions) rubrics today is a big change from where we were two or three years ago. But there’s still a huge gap because the schools still don’t share what score on a rubric actually led to an admission.

We’ve been able to engage schools and principals in a deeper conversation around middle school admissions, and some of the schools have taken what I think are big steps around applying for, and now implementing, diversity in admissions set-asides for low-income students at three of our most selective schools.

I also think we’ve made strides in having conversations with the community, but we haven’t been able to drive to more significant structural changes. One of the tensions that we see — and that probably a lot of districts see — is do we work toward incremental change, or do we work on holistic, system-wide changes?

Given that tension, what do you think needs to happen?

First and foremost, it’s really our middle school principals, and District 2 administration, and the DOE, who right now have the sole discretion, power, and authority to set the admissions standards for District 2.

Second is continuing to build support within the parent community in District 2 around changes to the middle school admissions process. One of the difficulties there is that constituency, which often are fourth-grade parents, is that once they’re through the process, if you ask them to reflect on the process, they would have significant issues with how it affected their kids. But once they pass through and move on to middle school, then it recedes into the background.

I think there’s also a message that’s being sent by the new chancellor that this is a deeply flawed system and many of the commonly held assumptions that we have in place, we need to question and challenge. Our principals and administrators need to bring that message forward to action.

Within the parent community, there will be debate, discussion, and contention. Our school leaders, people look to them for guidance, and they have the respect and reputation within the community to actually drive change. My hope is that Chancellor Carranza is giving all them more space to speak on and advocate for what they think is right.

What would a better middle school admissions system look like in District 2?

I think that this should be a collaborative development of a system that values our students and values the education environment that we want. I look to the community to come up with ideas.

I want to maintain student choice but I don’t believe there’s any value in assessment and selection of our students. So I don’t believe there should be any screens in place.

This system continues to work for select people and select subgroups, and those are the people who want us to perpetuate [it]. They are people of financial means, people with time resources, people with social capital. They are resourced in a way that works for them. But for 10- and 11-year-olds, we need a system that works for everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Each of these 10-year-olds has incredible potential. This screening system asks us to make distinctions around potential with tools that tell us nothing. At best, they’re telling us about their past performance, their family support, and maybe what they’ve been exposed to outside of school.

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

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.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Many parents and alumni have criticized the mayor’s plan, saying integration efforts should start much earlier with gifted and talented programs. Some are even calling for a new approach to determining who is gifted.

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative has not lobbied to keep the specialized high school exam in place.