Accountability · School Choice

A Personal Story about Gifted and Talented Programming in NYC

Just before I turned five years old, my parents moved me and my two younger sisters from our apartment on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx to a Queens neighborhood zoned for P.S. 115. While my old elementary school is now quite segregated (77 percent Asian, 18 percent White, 22 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch), then it was more diverse, although majority white.

The antediluvian version of P.S. 115 I attended divided each grade into four classrooms. For second grade there was 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, for third grade 3-1, 3.2, 3-3, 3-4, and so on. The classroom that ended in “4” for each grade was, well, different. At the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on it (my parents were mum on this point) but I knew that while the other classrooms varied their enrollment year to year, my classmates mostly stayed the same. Also,  just about everyone in my class was white.

In sixth grade all students (6-1, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4)  took a test and some of us, almost all from 6-4, were identified as “SP” for  junior high school. This meant “Special Progress.” At P.S. 172 (far more diverse then) us SP’er’s traveled from class to class together in a herd, unlike non-SP’ers who had different classmates in different classes.  Our segregated group, again almost all white, even had to sit in a special place in the cafeteria, right in the center surrounded by pillars. No one else could sit there, just SP kids, and we couldn’t sit anywhere else.

This was “Gifted and Talented” in NYC during the 70’s. While P.S. 115 (to a lesser degree) and P.S. 172 (to a greater degree) enrolled a diverse population, advanced programming was reserved for a “special” group of kids. Who happened to be white.

In other words, schools were “integrated” but classrooms were not.

That’s why I view with skepticism the impact of the current furor integrating middle schools on the Upper West Side, District 3.  Should the city schools be more integrated? Of course.

But here’s the thing: that’s not enough.

In order to truly integrate schools, you have to integrate classrooms too. And that may be a step too far for parents-in-the-know who, as Alina Adams has pointed out time and time again, game the system.

I suppose my parents did too. After all, my dad was a social studies teacher and my mom was a social worker, both in NYC public schools. It wasn’t an accident that we found a house in the catchment area of  P.S. 115. They knew how to play the game.

I live in New Jersey now and I see this old pattern in action. Last November the Star-Ledger reported that in the diverse school district of South Orange-Maplewood, “once they get inside, students’ educations differ, depending on their race.”

A report released by the district and presented at a public board of education meeting last month gauged the demographic breakdown of the students in each level of classes at Columbia [High School].

The results showed a continued racial divide — in ninth grade language arts, about 90 percent of white students are in honors, compared to less than 50 percent of black students. In biology, 36 percent of black students are in honors, compared to 89 percent of white students.

In another diverse district, Tom Moran, a resident (and editor), reports that “at Montclair High School, my kids were struck by the heavy concentration of minority kids in the less challenging classes, too often in the basement.”

A ticket to the school doesn’t solve the diversity dilemma that has plagued NYC schools for decades. All kids need a ticket into classrooms with high expectations. And they need it right from the get-go.

I applaud Chancellor Richard Carranza’s courage to wade into the fracas in District 3, which covers the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. A proposed DOE regulation would require high-performing middle schools there where enrollment is largely white, middle, or upper-class, to reserve 25 percent of their seats for students who score a 1 or a 2 on the state standardized tests, a step in the right direction that was greeted, says the Post, with “class and racial animus” by parents of current students. (Just included: The Center School, which games the system on its own, abetted both by the city and white upper-class parents like Cynthia Nixon.)

The city should implement that proposed regulation, although it shouldn’t wait until middle school because by then, as Alina writes, it’s too late for underserved students: they’ve lost their shot at educational equity. 

And if those students are relegated to an Upper West Side basement, how are they better off than before? White rich fairy dust?

The trick is to have high expectations for all students, regardless of demographics, and provide them with high-quality instruction. But New York is so far from that dream. And while  Carranza appears to get it (after the fiery meeting at MS 245 on 77th Street he tweeted, “wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools”) Mayor de Blasio said appeasingly, ““This was his own personal voice. We didn’t talk about the specific wording in advance. I might phrase it differently.”  The DOE equivocated by noting that the “admissions goal wouldn’t necessarily be met, because it depends on the applications received by schools” and there would be no quotas.

We divide our kids up into haves and have-nots, the system perpetuates the pattern, and then we moan at terrible outcomes for poor kids of color.Nothing will change until privileged parents (who actually spend $5,000 on G&T tutoring!) get woke and the NYC Department of Education stops enabling them.

Until then, the children of those privileged parents will continue to have their own pillared section of the cafeteria and the children of unprivileged parents will get shoved into the basement.

What do you think?

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