community meeting

East High opens Monday as a revamped T-STEM school. But confusion lingers on who gets to attend

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
East High School opens this fall as an all-optional "T-STEM" school for ninth graders.

With just days to go before students are due back in class in Memphis, parents and community members are still trying to figure out who gets to attend East High School — and what happens to students who are left out.

They’re holding a meeting Friday evening to try to understand long-planned changes that are nonetheless catching some families by surprise.

East High is transitioning into the district’s first all-optional school, meaning students must apply and be accepted — effectively closing the school to most neighborhood students, who will now be sent to two other high schools. The changes have been a long time coming but have created last-minute confusion for parents who didn’t hear the news or are new to the neighborhood.

They include Jackie Webb, a retired Shelby County Schools teacher whose son went to private school last year but hoped to go to East, the school in their neighborhood, this fall. Instead, her son will be among the local students sent instead to Douglass High School, four miles away, or Melrose High School, nearly three miles away.

“I decided to enroll my son into Shelby County Schools earlier this summer, believing he could go to East,” said Webb, who lives in what has been East High’s zone. “Come to find out, I can’t enroll him in East. He has to get bused to Melrose or Douglass.”

Webb plans to attend the meeting 6 p.m. Friday at Lester Community Center, where Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland will listen to parents and try to answer their questions.

It’s not clear whether a representative from the school district would be on hand to answer questions. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district had not heard such complaints from parents and had in fact been thorough in communicating with families and the community.

“From community meetings to phone calls and even extensive media coverage, we certainly have made it a priority to make families aware of the change,” said the spokeswoman, Kristin Tallent.

District leaders have said that major disruption needed to happen at East to keep the school open. In recent decades, the school’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000 students. And last spring, East made the list of the state’s 10 percent of lowest-performing schools, making it potentially vulnerable to state intervention.

Starting with this year’s incoming freshman class, East will shift to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. It will also choose students based on their academic performance, attendance, and discipline records — likely keeping out struggling students in the neighborhood.

The change drew pushback from alumni and community members concerned that the shift will hurt neighborhood students. Neighborhood students who were already attending East can stay through graduation but won’t be enrolled in the new program, and in the future, students in the neighborhood will have to meet admissions criteria to get in.

“I just moved back to the neighborhood and they are trying to send my daughter to Douglass,” Trina LaShawn said on a Facebook post. “But the way my work hours are set up I won’t be able to pick her up when school get out. She can walk from East but not Douglass.”

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.