NEW YORK – The holiday performances always gave it away.
Every December, as students at Public School 9 in Brooklyn stood to sing holiday songs while their parents looked on, one class would be made up of a lot of white students, followed by another class of almost all black students.
From the outside, the racial divide might seem curious as PS 9 is one of the most diverse elementary schools in Brooklyn: Out of about 940 students, 40% are black, 31% are white, 17% are Hispanic and 9% are Asian. But inside, many students spend their days learning in separate groups. The gifted and talented classes are attended by mostly white and Asian kids; the general education classes, mostly black students.
“It wasn’t obvious until you sat in the audience and watched everyone,” said Afiya Lahens, a black parent whose daughter is in the general education track.
Then something remarkable happened. After years of discussion and community meetings, a mixed-race committee of parents and teachers voted to phase out the gifted and talented track for future students at PS 9, specifically to decrease racial and economic segregation.
New York City’s education department agreed to follow the decision: Starting this fall, there will be no gifted track for the school’s incoming kindergartners. Instead, PS 9 will offer enrichment opportunities to more students based on their individual strengths and interests.
The move put PS 9 at the forefront of controversy surrounding racial integration in the nation’s largest school system – and one of its most segregated. It’s raised questions about whether school systems can have both excellence and equity and whether integration efforts should come from parents or official intervention.
The controversies have been particularly acute in Brooklyn, where white and affluent families populate neighborhoods historically inhabited by black and Latino residents. Gentrification has displaced people of color by driving up rents and intensified racial stratification in classrooms.
Segregation:It’s getting worse in schools, GAO says
Phasing out gifted and talented programs at PS 9 will test a controversial recommendation from a school diversity panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to end such programs at all elementary schools in the city. The panel’s rationale: Gifted programs are biased and serve to segregate children along lines of race and class, in large part because admission to most programs is based on a screening exam parents can register their children to take, starting at age 4.
Wealthy New York families often spend thousands of dollars on test prep for their preschoolers because the number of gifted and talented seats is limited. In a system of about 1.1 million children, about 16,000 seats are available in city-run elementary schools. As a result, gifted programs tend to isolate affluent children, and the power and resources that follow them can result in fewer resources for the general population.
Across the country, schools are locked in intense debates about what to do about gifted and talented programs, largely because of racial disparities. Some districts have stopped tracking gifted students. Others move to diversify gifted programs by ensuring more disadvantaged students have a chance to be tested.
In New York City, radically overhauling gifted and talented programs has long been a political third rail, largely because the programs are popular with affluent parents whose children are enrolled. That’s the demographic New York sought to court in the 1970s and ’80s with gifted programs in the first place, lest those families, often with more involved parents and higher incomes for tax purposes, move to the suburbs in search of better schools, education researchers said.
“We got a lot of pushback” on the overhaul, said PS 9 parent Kirsten Cole, who is white. “I feel naive in saying this: It was more than I expected.”
New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has championed school integration since de Blasio appointed him in 2018. That energized advocates for diversity, but many grow impatient that neither leader has adopted the most radical recommendations to help all schools to reflect the diversity of the city. The chancellor and the mayor declined to phase out all gifted and talented programs or to prohibit schools from using achievement measures to screen children for admission.
Department of Education officials indicate they’re more interested in supporting efforts that bubble up from individual communities. A spokeswoman told USA TODAY integration initiatives are not a “one-size-fits-all model.”
The city has been under pressure to do something since a major report in 2014 spelled out how New York schools had become the most racially segregated in the country.
De Blasio floated scrapping admissions tests to the most elite high schools – often seen as the destination for gifted and talented students – where black and Hispanic students are underrepresented. That idea faced major opposition, especially from some Asian lawmakers and certain alumni. It’s unlikely to go forward because it would require action from the state Legislature.
Then there’s the troubling fact that the move to eliminate gifted programs is opposed by some black and Latino parents, whose kids it’s supposed to help. Some of those parents see elementary school gifted programs, as well as elite high schools, as the only way for their children to work hard and get ahead.
“The whole thing is a red herring,” said Ayanna Behin, a Brooklyn parent and president of the parent advisory group in the district that includes PS 9. Behin is black, and her children attend a different Brooklyn school that pursued another path to maintain integration: It changed its admissions policies to set aside more seats for low-income students.
“Students in the gifted and talented program make up a tiny percentage of the system, and yet talk about eliminating that program generates a huge amount of controversy,” Behin said. “What we really need to be focusing on is fixing the system for everybody.”
Gifted programs: Roots in segregation, debatable benefits
Some say fixing the system for everyone must start with how children are classified and expected to learn, which goes to the heart of the debate around gifted education.
In New York City, children who score in the top tier of the gifted and talented exam can compete for slots at citywide gifted schools and programs at traditional elementary schools.
In 2019, more than 32,000 students in kindergarten through third grade took the exam, and almost 8,000 scored high enough to qualify for a gifted program. That doesn’t guarantee them a seat. Schools offer the limited number of seats in order of students’ scores on the exam.
The odds are low for black and Latino students. They make up close to 70% of the district’s enrollment, but far fewer of them take the gifted test. Of all kindergartners in 2017-18 who passed the test and received an offer for gifted and talented, just 10% were Latino and 8% were black.
In contrast, 17% of New York kindergartners are white, but they made up 39% of kindergartners who received 2017-18 offers for gifted and talented seats. Eighteen percent of kindergartners are Asian, but they made up 42% of the gifted seats.
Those divides are not due to cognitive differences between races, but a function of access, resources and systemic bias against blacks and Latinos, education experts said.
Studies show nonblack teachers are less likely to recommend black students for gifted and talented programs. Another study showed that when parents and teachers nominated children, they missed many qualified students. When the large urban district in that study, Broward County Public Schools in Florida, switched to screening all children in second grade, more low-income and minority students were placed in gifted programs.
Because there’s no federal standard for identifying giftedness, states and districts come up with their own definitions – which is one reason researchers don’t have a clear answer on the benefits of gifted education.
Some say highly talented children can reach their full potential only if they’re educated alongside other high-achieving students. Some studies show pulling gifted kids out of regular classes to work together for part of the day increased the children’s achievement, critical thinking and creativity.
“It’s good for kids to be with their intellectual peers,” said David Lubinski, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University and longtime expert on gifted education.
Other academics say the stratification caused by ambiguously defined talent produces damaging levels of segregation. When students of varying abilities work together, lower-performing students do better, research shows, without slowing the progress of average and high-achieving students.
“If you think that public schools should be leveling the playing field for all kids, then identifying children and ranking their potential based on who signed them up to take a test tends to reinforce the inequalities we see in society,” said Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in New York, who wrote a book about gifted education and segregation in New York City.
The first major studies of gifted kids in America started in the 1920s and ’30s when urban centers experienced an influx of immigrants, Roda said. Schools intentionally created different tracks to separate students by race, class and linguistic ability, she said.
In 1957, after the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite, the United States ramped up math and science programs for talented students who could help the country compete in the “space race.” When schools navigated the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s, gifted education remained a path where mostly white and wealthy students could be educated separately from their peers of color, Roda said.
For her book, Roda interviewed New York parents whose children tested into gifted programs.
“They admit that the admissions system is flawed, but they still kind of work it to their advantage,” she said.
‘The same things white people want for their children’
On a Saturday morning in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically black but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in central Brooklyn, children climbed to the third floor of a Baptist church. They took their seats, snack bags in hand, winter coats still on, waiting for studies in English and mathematics that would last for the next four hours.
The students, all of whom were black, attend CAS Prep, a tutoring and test-prep business run by educator Sam Adewumi. He started the program expecting that black students could better compete on the high-stakes exam for elite high school admissions – which is separate from the gifted and talented exam for elementary schools – if they had access to the same tutoring wealthy families pursue.
He charges parents about $250 for a six-week session of Saturday classes. By comparison, the test-prep company Kaplan charges at least $1,000 for eight tutoring sessions for the Specialized High School Admissions Test.
CAS Prep tutors about 150 students in first to eighth grades. Adewumi said many students are so far behind, they don’t have a realistic shot at passing the exam. After the first year or two of the business, Adewumi said, three students passed and got into elite high schools. These days, about 10 to 12 CAS Prep students each year qualify for top schools.
It’s well-documented that few black students have a shot at those seats. New York City made headlines last spring after reports showed only seven slots at the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School went to black students. That was out of 895 seats in the freshman class.
Adewumi – and many of his clients – are in favor of the high school admissions test, along with gifted programs at the elementary level, because they offer black students a shot at the elite education that can propel them into successful careers, he said.
Desiree Griffith, a black mother whose 13-year-old daughter attends CAS Prep, agreed. Her daughter took the high school exam in October but won’t find out her score until March.
“The minority children who are smart need something to challenge them,” Griffith said as her daughter worked through algebra problems with a cluster of four students.
Griffith said her daughter took the gifted and talented test in elementary school but didn’t qualify. She attends a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but she’s not challenged enough, Griffith said. Griffith said the best way to integrate schools is to make sure students have the same opportunities in all buildings. She’d like to see a well-funded gifted and talented program in every school.
“The same things white parents want for their children is what we want for our children as well,” she said.
Around the country:63 years after landmark Brown v. Board case, segregated classrooms persist
More New York City schools used to have gifted and talented tracks, but over the years, they were underfunded and/or were eliminated because of low enrollment, said Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy, who represents historically black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He said he’d rather see the Department of Education expand gifted tracks at all schools, rather than eliminate them.
“I had one tool within that broken system to try to level the playing field,” Cornegy said. “And now you’re trying to remove it.”
In Brooklyn, steps toward integration spark pushback
A number of grassroots efforts in New York attracted attention for tackling integration. One of the most high-profile last year: a Brooklyn district where all the middle schools agreed to eliminate selective admissions criteria for incoming students. Students rank their schools, and an algorithm matches them to buildings while offering preference for children who are low-income, learning English or homeless. The move helped to better integrate eight of the district’s 11 middle schools. A similar admissions policy experiment took place in a Manhattan district.
The department said about 100 schools across the city – there are about 1,800 in all – individually try to diversify their admissions. Five districtsreceived $200,000 grantsto develop community-driven diversity processes.
Parents who push for major change often find themselves in bruising battles.
Such as the one at PS 9 in Brooklyn.
The elementary school hosted at least four different tracks for children: gifted and talented, general education, a dual-language Spanish-English track and a track for traditionally developing students to learn alongside students with special needs. Over the years, it became clear the gifted and talented track had become the “whitest,” said Cole, the parent who co-chaired the school’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
“We could see pretty clearly that the existence of the G&T track was producing segregation in our school,” Cole said.
Teachers at PS 9, Cole said, told the committee gifted classes covered most of the same content as the general education classes, just a little faster. Teachers talked about the unequal distribution of resources to classrooms that seemed to result from the tracking.
There was a small number of vocal critics, including white and Asian parents. After multiple public roundtable sessions, a competing proposal emerged to keep and diversify gifted and talented at PS 9.
The diversity committee ultimately decided to phase out the track, though that action had to pass through several levels of approval.
Supporters of gifted and talented programs said there are ways to keep them and make them more inclusive. The co-founders of TestingMom.com, an online preschool test-prep company, said many black and Latino families don’t know the gifted and talented test is an option for them. They said the city should administer the gifted exam to all children in its pre-kindergarten programs, unless parents opt out.
“Why would you get rid of the best educational program the city could offer?” said Karen Quinn, who founded the company with Michael McCurdy, who runs a blog about gifted and talented programs in New York.
“I wish more than 1% of kids could get in,” Quinn said. “I wish 5% of kids could get in.”
A shift toward enrichment for all, without labels
PS 9 students in gifted classes will continue through graduation. Subsequent classes will experience “schoolwide enrichment,” in which teachers will offer individual students challenging material based on their interests or talents.
Schools in Washington, D.C., have taken a similar approach. The district no longer labels students “gifted and talented.” Instead, parents can choose from among 13 elementary and middle schools that host in-school enrichment for students who show strengths in specific areas, from science to photography to social action. The schools are not magnets or test-in programs, but it’s easier for children to get seats if they live within a school’s boundary. A full-time teacher or committee at the schools coordinate the extra activities.
Studies show the model can encourage more independent investigations, more self-selected work and more creative presentations from students. Some studies showed it could also lead to higher scores in reading fluency and comprehension.
With schoolwide enrichment, Ayani Wallace, 9, a student in the general education track at PS 9, might have been given more opportunities in school to develop her love of fashion and design. To nurture it, her mother took her to a class on how to write a business plan. Then they both entered a business-pitching competition for their idea: an online athleisure clothing company for adolescent girls.
Ayani and her mom won $1,000 in seed money, and they’re developing relationships with manufacturers and raising money to produce a first round of clothes.
Recently, Ayani started noticing differences between classes at her school – just like her mother, Afiya Lahens, had during those annual holiday performances. She asked why she couldn’t be in gifted and talented classes.
Lahens had taken her daughter to the exam. Her most vivid memory was 4-year-old Ayani returning distraught because she wasn’t allowed to play with toys during the test.
Lahens decided the truth was the best response.
“Well,” she told her daughter, “you have to pass a test.”
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
Source: GANNETT Syndication Service