(This is a guest post by David Gorvitz, who previously wrote NYC Drops Popular Gifted & Talented Program: A Parent’s Take.)
I recently wrote this to the Superintendent of NYC DOE District 3 (Upper West Side/Morningside Heights/part of Harlem), which is considering allocating some of the 100 Kindergarten and 1,000 3rd-Grade seats being added to the Gifted and Talented program citywide. Complicating its task is the continued hostility of some principals to accelerated or selective education models like G&T. A case in point is P.S. 163, located near Harlem, a priority area for G&T expansion. The school had begun phasing out its long-established G&T program at the beginning of 2021-22, inspired by the initiatives of the De Blasio administration, but still has the G&T-certified teachers, institutional experience, and a dedicated G&T parent body, making it a logical place to put some of the new seats. Unfortunately, the principal’s thinking on the subject still appears to align with the views of the old administration, not the new, and he continues to have the Superintendent’s strong support. Our children had been students at P.S. 163 but left in connection with the G&T wind-down. While we are happy at our new private school, other parents with children still at P.S. 163/district urged me to write this letter, believing I could offer a valuable perspective on the subject. Could this corner of Upper Manhattan be a microcosm for the challenges the new Mayor and Chancellor will face on the ground in implementing their more pro-achievement, pro-opportunity educational vision for all neighborhoods?
From: David Gorvitz
Date: Thu, Apr 28, 2022
Subject: Reinstating G&T at P.S. 163
To: Loughlin Christine <CLoughl@schools.nyc.gov>
Cc: <email@example.com>, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
You may remember me from our frequent correspondence when my children were in P.S. 163, in its Gifted and Talented program. They left the school – and the public school system — at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. I am writing to you now because I understand that the District is considering whether to allocate some of the G&T seats being created as part of the newly announced citywide expansion of the program somewhere in the District, which allocation plans, if any, may be discussed at a special meeting of CEC3 tonight. I urge you to propose a plan which puts both new kindergarten and 3rd-grade G&T seats in P.S. 163, where the G&T program already exists but is being phased out by decision of the principal, Donny Lopez.
I am sure that you have had many discussions with school leadership and parent body about declining enrollment at P.S. 163. While enrollment is declining everywhere, the projections that I have seen for P.S. 163 are looking quite dire. The numbers seem to reflect another drop of almost 15% in enrollment for 2022-23, putting the average class at fewer than 15 students.
Families are leaving the public school system for different reasons, and for every school the mix of reasons is probably different. I can tell you that the primary reason we left the school was the principal’s decision to phase out the G&T program, even though the phase-out did not ostensibly affect our rising 4th and 5th-graders. Aside from the well-documented problems with the surreptitious manner in which the decision was made, with not even a courtesy notice to the CEC or the much-affected D3 community, it was seen by us and many of the other families that left during and after last year as deeply anti-intellectual. As you can see from the initial draft of the school’s “vision” proposed last year by the principal in conjunction with the elimination of the program (ultimately somewhat softened after intense pushback from the parent body), academics and achievement were suddenly seen as secondary, or even lesser, values, as compared to cultural and identitarian considerations, such as the need to “center” students’ “identity,” and to the principal’s very specific (and I submit, esoteric) views of equity.
When our children attended the school, we would recommend P.S. 163 not only to families considering the G&T program but to others as well because the presence of the program, among other things, could be said to demonstrate the school’s seriousness about providing a rigorous education. But when a school sees its priorities in terms of a pie chart where academics don’t even rate a quarter of the pie, we can no longer do that, and neither can any other reasonable person. I understand that this year the enrichment-for-all program touted by the principal as a potential replacement for G&T, consisted of a grand total of one (1) group project for the kindergarten class in September. It will not be a draw for this school. Neither will the school’s DL program, which the principal expanded to attract more students, but which competes with 9 others in the District. This year, I understand that the two K classes in the program drew only 12 and 13 students, respectively.
The G&T program, on the other hand (competing with only 2 others in the District), is a clear differentiator for the school and has historically attracted significant numbers of students from outside the zone, including our own children. In 2016, our daughter had to wait until the 5th day of the school year to get off the waitlist to get into kindergarten. In 2018-19, her class had over 30 students, causing overcapacity and student-teacher ratio concerns. Don’t you wish you had those problems again? There is a way back. As you have seen — painfully — the school has a very active body of parents dedicated to the G&T program. Not only does it show up in force to every meeting, it even organized a primary mayoral campaign stop at the school last spring. Most of the G&T families still have not left. As far as I know, all the G&T teachers are still in place. At the same time, there is no significant grass-roots opposition to G&T at the school. At most, only 1-2 parents have ever spoken in favor of eliminating the program at any public meeting at the school. Notably, in all my years of involvement in the school community, I have never seen a parent of color or anyone self-identifying as economically disadvantaged speak out against G&T. Opposition to accelerated education has always been a uniquely elite, luxury view, the province of graduate school programs (see Lopez bio), where it is cloaked in impenetrable jargon. It has never been shared by the bulk of the population because it is well known that opportunities for advanced education provide keys to social mobility. It is no surprise that the poorest, most immigrant-heavy racial group in New York City has flocked to the G&T program and represents a plurality of the students in it (see memo). Notably, I believe at least one half of the G&T student body at P.S. 163 was and remains non-white, and that at least half of the rest are probably first-generation immigrants. (One could argue that our children, who are first-generation Ukrainian immigrants, part Jewish and part Arab, should not be automatically dismissed as non-diverse, but that is a topic for a different conversation).
Beyond the school itself, I urge you to consider your wider responsibility to the District and the City as a public official. Historically, New York City public schools have been a wellspring of brilliance, producing well over 40 Nobel laureates. About 40% of them attended the City’s handful of specialized high schools. The rest almost certainly availed themselves of the other City schools’ advanced curriculum offerings, like Richard Feynman, one of the greatests physicists of the latter half of the 20th Century, who attended an accelerated math program at Far Rockaway High School. Notably, many, if not most, of these Nobel prize winners were Jewish first and second-generation immigrants. But not all emphasized their ethnic or religious backgrounds. Feynman, for example, rejected attempts to recognize him as a “great Jewish physicist” throughout his career, writing at one point that it was far better “not to think of people as having special inherited attributes simply because they are born from particular parents, but to try to teach these ‘valuable’ elements to all men because all men can learn, no matter what their race.”
You see, not everyone shares Principal Lopez’s view that schools should “center” students’ “identity.” On the other hand, the next crop of Nobel prize winners will have to “learn” some things in school, and, like it or not, they will need to learn certain things much better and faster than most other kids. In other words, they will need accelerated education opportunities. If this next cohort once again comes from the New York City public schools, there is every chance that many, if not most, of the winners will once again be first-generation immigrants — and this time likely children of color. Of course, their make-up may once again not precisely reflect the population ratios of the various racial and ethnic groups in the City. Will you let that be the reason to shut the pathway to greatness for everyone? If you do, and no one from P.S. 163, the District, or the City public schools ever wins the Nobel Prize again, the numbers of those New York City public school kids *not* winning the Nobel Prize will be precisely racially balanced. Would that be better? The time to make the choice is now.
May 10, 2022 workshop on applying to G&T programs (K-3rd) for September 2022. Space is extremely limited. RSVP, here.