In One School, Students Are Divided by Gifted Label — and Race

Published: January 12, 2013

IT is just a metal door with three windows, the kind meant to keep the clamor of an elementary school hallway from piercing a classroom’s quiet. Other than paint the color of bubble gum, it is unremarkable.
But the pink door on Room 311 at Public School 163 on the Upper West Side represents a barrier belied by its friendly hue. On one side are 21 fourth graders labeled gifted and talented by New York City’s school system. They are coursing through public school careers stamped accelerated.
And they are mostly white.
On the other side, sometimes sitting for reading lessons on the floor of the hallway, are those in the school’s vast majority: They are enrolled in general or special education programs.
They are mostly children of color.

Dave Sanders for The New York Times

DISPARITY A fourth-grade gifted class taught by Angelo Monserrate at Public School 163.

“I know what we look like,” Carolyn M. Weinberg, a 28-year veteran of P.S. 163, said of the racial disparities as she stood one day in the third-floor hallway between Room 318, where she and a colleague teach a fourth-grade general education class, and the one where Angelo Monserrate teaches the gifted class, Room 311.
“I know what you see,” said Ms. Weinberg.
There are 652 students enrolled at P.S. 163 this year, from prekindergarten through fifth grade. Roughly 63 percent of them are black and Hispanic; whites make up 27 percent; and Asians account for 6 percent.
This reflects the flavor of the neighborhood, and roughly matches the New York City school system’s overall demographics.
Yet in P.S. 163’s gifted classes, the racial dynamics of the neighborhood, the school itself and the school system are turned upside down.
Of the 205 children enrolled in the nine gifted classes, 97, or 47 percent, are white; another 31 of the students, or 15 percent, are Asian. And a combined 65 students, or 32 percent, are black and Hispanic.
In the 21 other classes that enroll the school’s remaining 447 students, only 80, or 18 percent, are white.
The disparities are most apparent in the lower grades.
Of the 24 students in Karen Engler’s kindergarten gifted class, one is black and three are Hispanic. Ayelet Cutler’s first-grade gifted class has 21 students, one of them black and two Hispanic. There are two blacks and two Hispanics among the 26 students in Athena Shapiro’s second-grade gifted class.
On a recent morning, a line of Ms. Cutler’s students moved from the classroom to the corridor, ahead of the general education class of Linda Crews. A string of mostly white faces and then a line of mostly black and Hispanic ones walked down the hall of a school named for a New York politician who sought to end inequities in education: Alfred E. Smith.

It was 11:25 a.m., and the classes wound their way to the cafeteria, a cavernous room at the school’s western edge. Once there, the children sat with those in their own class, each one at a separate long white table that, for a moment, froze the divisions.
For critics of New York City’s gifted and talented programs, that image crystallizes what they say is a flawed system that reinforces racial separation in the city’s schools and contributes to disparities in achievement.
They contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise, and that the programs create castes within schools, one offered an education that is enriched and accelerated, the other getting a bare-bones version of the material. Because they are often embedded within larger schools, the programs bolster a false vision of diversity, these critics say, while reinforcing the negative stereotypes of class and race.
Despite months of repeated requests, the city’s Education Department would not provide racial breakdowns of gifted and talented programs and the schools that house them. But the programs tend to be in wealthier districts whose populations have fewer black and Hispanic children, and far more children qualify for them in affluent districts than in poorer ones.
In District 3, which stretches for 63 blocks along Manhattan’s Upper West Side and includes P.S. 163, there are five gifted programs for elementary school children, including the Anderson School, one of five citywide programs.
Farther north, for all of Districts 5 and 6, which are poorer and more heavily black and Hispanic, there are just two programs.
And though programs are clustered in affluent neighborhoods around Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and in northeastern Queens, the accelerated classes are absent from broad swaths of central Brooklyn and southeast Queens, where more families are poor and black or Hispanic.
In District 7, in the South Bronx, there is not a single gifted program. The area, dominated by Hispanic and black residents, is among the poorest in the nation, with many people living below the official federal poverty mark.
James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, said that looking at the gifted landscape in New York City suggests that one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way the city selects children for those programs.
“It is well known in the education community that standardized tests advantage children from wealthier families and disadvantage children from poorer families,” Dr. Borland said.
And the city’s efforts to fix the system seem to have only made it worse.
Until recently, each of the city’s 32 school districts could establish the classes as it saw fit and determine its own criteria for admission. They varied, but educators often took a holistic approach; they looked at evaluations from teachers and classroom observations, relying on tests only in part, by comparing the results of students from within a district.
That changed in September 2008, when the Bloomberg administration ushered in admission based only on a cutoff score on two high-stakes tests given in one sitting — the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment.
The overhaul was meant to standardize the admissions process and make it fairer. But the new tests decreased diversity, with children from the poorest districts offered a smaller share of kindergarten gifted slots after those were introduced, while pupils in the wealthiest districts got more.
For the 2012-13 school year, 4,912 children qualified for gifted programs. The more affluent districts — 2 and 3 in Manhattan, 20 and 22 in Brooklyn, and 25 and 28 in Queens — had the most students qualify: 949 in District 2, which takes in Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side, and 505 in District 3.
Some districts in poor and predominately black and Hispanic districts had too few qualifiers to fill a single class: in District 7, only six children qualified for gifted placements, and none for the most exclusive schools, like Hunter College Elementary School or the Anderson School, which require a score at or above the 97th percentile.
The number of classes over all fell sharply.
This year, the department changed the process again, substituting a new test known as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test — Second Edition, or NNAT2, for the Bracken exam. This is what children competing for placements next year started facing this month, in tests that began on Jan. 7.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, said data showed that a “more diverse range of kids” excelled on the new test because it was less rooted in test preparation and would allow educators to more accurately identify gifted pupils.
But focusing on the gifted classrooms is missing the point, Mr. Polakow-Suransky said. Though it is worthy to debate whether the “world of G.&T.” is diverse enough, he said, the administration’s “equity agenda” is much broader: It seeks to improve the quality of education and close achievement gaps across the entire school system.
“We are not a system that is purely focused on running a good G.&T. program,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said. “We are a system that is focused on dramatically shifting educational opportunities for, particularly, kids of color and kids from high-poverty neighborhoods who have historically in this city been deeply neglected.”
But the accelerated classrooms serve as pipelines to the city’s highest-achievement middle schools and high schools, creating a cycle in which students who start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools.
And the numbers of black and Hispanic students who make it into the city’s specialized high schools, long seen as its flagship institutions, have declined significantly over recent decades. Though about 70 percent of city students are black or Hispanic, from 2006 to 2012 the two groups, combined, were offered only about 15 percent of the seats at the specialized high schools, according to the Education Department.
“I don’t think the fact that G.&T. programs are clearly and disproportionately white, and are so lacking, given the size of the population, in black and Latino students is the result of anyone’s bad intentions,” said Ellis Cose, a parent of a child who attends a gifted and talented program at P.S. 163. Mr. Cose is the author of “The End of Anger” (2011), which explores the issues of race and generational change.
“I think it is really the result of people committed to a system that can never work if the objective is diversity,” he said.
“The only way it even conceivably can work is to give young poor kids the same sort of boost up that young affluent kids get, which is to make sure these kids get an excellent preschool education, make sure these kids get tutoring, make sure these parents know at what time in the circuit they are supposed to prepare their kids for what. And that is taking on a much larger task than tinkering with a test.”
THE idea of gifted education has drifted in and out of vogue in American schools. It was elevated in the 1950s, when educators and lawmakers pushed gifted programs in math and science amid fears about communism’s rise. It waned in the 1960s but re-emerged with a White House task force on giftedness and the signing of several federal bills in the 1970s that recognized gifted children’s needs.
Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement. “There have been claims that gifted education resegregates the public schools,” Dr. Borland said.
“Certainly there was concern with keeping middle-class families involved in public schools, and to the extent that we use tests to select kids for gifted programs, that tends to skew the programs toward children from wealthier, white families,” he added.
At P.S. 163, gifted classrooms date to at least the late 1980s.
Children take different pathways to the school’s classrooms. For general education students, the school is open to those who live in the neighborhood zone, a U-shape area that stretches roughly from West 96th to West 102nd Streets, between Central Park West and just west of Broadway. It captures brownstones and co-ops with park views as well part of the massive Frederick Douglass Houses, a public housing complex whose 20-story towers rise between West 100th and West 104th Streets east of Amsterdam Avenue.
Students from within District 3 whose combined scores on the gifted tests were in the 90th percentile or above can list P.S. 163’s gifted program as one they would prefer to attend. The central office then assigns them to one of their chosen schools. Another choice is the school’s dual-language program, which fosters bilingual learning among students who are split roughly 50-50, according to Spanish or English dominance. Students enter by choice, though priority is given to those in the neighborhood.
In the spring of 2004, P.S. 163’s principal at the time, Virginia M. Pepe, helped create her own assessment of a subgroup of prekindergarten students for placement in the next year’s kindergarten gifted program.
With one eye on the need for diversity and another on the need for objectivity, Dr. Pepe developed some cognitive tasks, like sorting objects, and mixed in an early childhood preliteracy assessment and an assessment of language. Kindergarten gifted teachers also observed the children.
It was a “balancing act” that year, to find the right mix of students for the new kindergarten gifted programs, she said. An aid in diversifying that program, which lasted just one year, was a policy from the central office that allowed families from districts north of the school — Districts 5 and 6, for instance — to send their children to P.S. 163’s gifted program if they chose to and if seats were available.
“Those districts did not have gifted and talented programs at the time,” Dr. Pepe said.
“Families that were Caucasian liked us because we offered more diversity, and multiracial families liked us because they thought their children would have opportunities to be in a more diverse setting, and African-American families from up in District 5 appreciated us because they were closer to home.”
In 2007, though, the Education Department stopped allowing out-of-district children to attend (a policy it has now reversed for the 2013-14 school year); the following year, it went to the testing-only admission policy. And that “slowed things down” in diversifying the gifted-and-talented program, said Nia Mason, an art teacher who began teaching at the school in 1988.
“The diversity changed overnight when they put that test in,” Ms. Mason said.
IF P.S. 163 has little control over admission to the gifted programs or who ultimately gets seated, it does control what happens in its classrooms. According to the current principal, Donny R. Lopez, the school’s leadership does its best to foster mingling between students in the gifted classes and others.
One day, half the students from Keira A. Dillon’s fifth-grade gifted class mixed with half the students from Robyn Lindner’s fifth-grade general education class and headed to the auditorium for a program run by the National Dance Institute.
There, onstage, the pupils from the two classes giggled and moved self-consciously as they followed the directions of Bianca Johnson, a teaching artist and choreographer.
At one point, when Ms. Johnson held up a photo of a man’s face and asked for his name, it was Jamal Brown, a boy from the general education class, who identified him as Jacques d’Amboise, the founder of the National Dance Institute.
Some teachers at P. S. 163 use the word “enriched,” rather than “accelerated,” to describe the academics of the gifted programs.
Ms. Dillon said that even within gifted classes there was a spectrum of ability, and that she commonly arranged pupils into small groups, according to their abilities, for reading, writing, math and the like.
This fall, in studying the branches of the federal government, about a third of her students understood that some concepts of power also extended to the states and that there was an interplay between state and federal powers.
“The general education students might not have all covered this topic,” said Ms. Dillon, whose class is more diverse than most of the gifted and talented rooms, with five black and eight Hispanic children among the 26 students.
Sara K. Bloch’s triplets are all in different programs at the school. Leon is in Ms. Dillon’s gifted class; Jason is in general education; and Felix is in what is known as an integrated co-teaching class, which mixes special education students with general education children like Felix. “To be completely honest, we feel that this class is probably similar to a regular fifth-grade class,” she said on the day she visited Leon in Ms. Dillon’s class. “Math is the same; all three — they have the same book.”
But Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party. She also said that the relationship between the parents and the teachers was more intense at the gifted level, with an expectation of parent involvement and connectedness.
“There is none of that in the other classes,” Ms. Bloch said.
In her experience in teaching those who teach gifted children in New York City’s public schools, Christy T. Folsom, a professor at Lehman College and a former board member of Advocacy for Gifted and Talented Education in New York State, said gifted children got a “much deeper experience and, in some cases, more advanced curriculum.”
“In the gifted classrooms that I’ve been in, the majority of kids are reading at grade level or beyond, and they can write well, and then so much time is not spent on basic skills so they can spend more time on content and on comparing historical eras,” Professor Folsom said. “They are then able to do the more deep thinking work because less time has to be spent on the fundamental skills.”
WHY parents embrace or reject public schools is a complicated equation.
At P.S. 163, several parents and teachers wondered whether white parents would stay if not for the gifted classes.
“You don’t see any white kids in the general education classes,” said one parent of a student in a dual-language class, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “You might see one or two, but I don’t see any white families coming to register their children for general education. They come straight to gifted and talented.”
“I guess it is a question of, ‘How much diversity do you feel comfortable with?’ ” said the parent of one child in the gifted program, who did not want to be identified for fear of animosity from other parents. “Do I want him to be the only white kid in an all-black school? No. Would I like it if the racial mix was more proportionate? Yes, whatever the percentage of the makeup. That’s an honest answer, from my soul. Is it hypocritical for parents to say, ‘We’re sending our kids to public school,’ but they’re sending them to an all-white gifted and talented program? But it’s not our fault. We want the best for our children.”
Carrie C. Reynolds, a co-president of the PTA, said parents seemed to be basing choices not on race but on the academic environment and on socioeconomic factors.
“If you were upper income, well educated, you want your kid to have a more enriched education,” she said. “I think it is more economics than race. They tend to go hand-in-hand in New York City, but I certainly know families that have made a different choice, that are here at this school, that are white and are not in gifted and talented.”
But one afternoon at the school, Ms. Lindner, the fifth-grade teacher, said she was “always surprised” when she saw more than two or three white children in her general education classes.
As a parent herself, and a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she said, “there’s no way I’d put my kid in a general-education class here, no way, because it’s right next to the project and all the kids in general education come from the projects.”
She said her experience was that many of the children in her general education classes were at grade level or below and did not get the same support from their parents that the children in the gifted classes got. “They’re tougher kids,” she said of the general education students in the school. “They’re very street-savvy. They don’t have the background; their parents are hard on them but don’t know what to do with them.”
Andi Velasquez, who as the school’s parent coordinator has helped lead tours of the school for prospective parents over the last two years, said she had occasionally heard very “vocal” parents expressing surprise in seeing even a few black and Hispanic children in a gifted class.
“They say, ‘It has too many minorities to be a G&T class; that can’t be a G&T class,’ ” said Ms. Velasquez, 48, who is white and is married to a Hispanic man from Colombia, and whose two children attended the dual-language program at P.S. 87.
“And I say, ‘We’re proud of that,’ ” she said. “And those are the parents that haven’t come in the past.”
SANDRA M. ECHOLS, 46, a single mother who is black, has sent all three of her children to the gifted classes at P.S. 163, beginning with her oldest son who, in 1998, when he was entering fourth grade, gained admission to the program.
“It is an elitist program,” Ms. Echols said. “They don’t advertise it the way it should be advertised, but I’m glad I was savvy enough to navigate the system and give my children what they need.”
She remembers taking her oldest son to his middle-school gifted program and being mistaken for “the nanny.”
Her daughter got into the P.S. 163 program for kindergarten and was one of only two black girls in the class until second grade, when the other girl moved away, leaving her as the sole black child.
Now, Ms. Echols’s youngest son, Kenyan, 10, is in the fifth-grade gifted and talented class taught by Ms. Dillon.
Ms. Echols recounted her story while standing in Kenyan’s class one morning in the fall, when Ms. Dillon had invited parents to a “publishing party” to celebrate essays the children had written and edited.
“This class is the most diverse gifted and talented class I’ve seen,” said Ms. Echols, as other parents and children swirled around her.
She said that now her son was “best buds” with Lucas Pulsifer, who is white, and Nicholas Urena, who is Hispanic, and that they often arranged weekend play dates. “They represent what New York City is all about: a truly diverse melting pot.”
Minutes later, the party over, the parents began trickling out. Ms. Echols walked out with Lucas’s mother, Anna.
“We’re going to get coffee now,” she said, her arm hooked around the white woman’s elbow.

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