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In one elementary school, a researcher finds sharply divergent views on its gifted program

New York City’s gifted and talented programs can look like a reverse image of the school system: While seven in 10 city students are black or Hispanic, only three in 10 students in those selective programs are.

Researcher Allison Roda dove deep into one elementary school to find out why. She spent three years conducting 52 in-depth interviews with New York City parents, and the result is her new book, “Inequity in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation,” a nuanced picture of the cultural divides that can underlie those programs.

Roda found the school’s white parents grappling with a desire for diversity at their children’s schools, while not wanting to sacrifice a pathway to a prestigious middle or high school. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic parents didn’t see G&T programs as such a clear pathway to later success — and few parents in either set thought students in the programs were truly “gifted.”

Chalkbeat talked to Roda about her book and its implications for the city’s ongoing debate about school segregation. (The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

What got you interested in this topic?
I did prior research on this topic with my adviser at Teachers College, Amy Stuart Wells. We looked at school choice and at parents, how satisfied they were with school choice options. G&T was brought up and how uncomfortable they were with that. When they went on G&T school tours, you could just easily see that one was G&T and one was “gen ed” because of the color of the children’s skin in the classroom.

And another thing was just how segregated their options are, and how they wish there would be more integrated school options but there really isn’t a lot. One parent said if you only have segregation, you choose segregation. So they were kind of stuck with that.

On how the white parents viewed school diversity at the school she focused on
The takeaway is really that they’re conflicted between their beliefs and exposing their children to diversity. That’s why they chose to live in a diverse city in the first place.

But when they are in the process of choosing schools, really their only options are segregated options, and so they’re kind of caught in the middle of their beliefs and what their choices are.

On how the black and Latino parents viewed gifted and talented programs
I interviewed nine black and Latino parents who had experience in the general education program. They overwhelmingly thought that gifted and talented in the school was used as a tool for segregation and for parents to have this kind of better-than status in the school.

I’ll give an example. Every year the PTA asks all of the parents to donate $2,500, basically to pay for the teaching assistant salaries in each classroom, and that’s a lot of money. For lower-income parents, they weren’t able to pay that and they didn’t really agree with paying that much money for a public school, even if they had the money. So because all of the white parents basically paid, there was a perception that they paid for the teaching assistant salaries because they could afford that and they walked around like they were better in the school.

On why black and Latino parents didn’t necessarily want to get into G&T programs
Another thing was two of the black parents had children in the gifted program. It was hard, I think, for the student and family to be the only black child or parent in that classroom. They didn’t want to be the only person of color in the gifted classroom. That’s another reason why they didn’t want to be in that program.

The other thing is that black and Latino parents, they didn’t really buy into the gifted label, because they know all the white parents were prepping their children to take the test and spending a lot of money for test prep. So for all of those reasons, they were not re-testing or striving to get into the program like the white parents were.

So why did the white parents care so much about getting into G&T programs?
The main reason is for them to get on the right track or pathway to the better middle schools and to the better high schools.

What attracts them to the G&T program is that it is seen as a feeder to the gifted middle school program, and that’s a feeder into the better high schools. This is a really high-stakes situation for some parents. Especially parents who live in neighborhoods where their neighborhood school wasn’t an option for them, so gifted and talented was a way out.

Why don’t the black and Latino parents see G&T as a “track” like white parents do?
There were some barriers to getting information about just the school tours and the options that they have. One of the Latino mothers that I interviewed, she said she was the only Latino mother at a middle school tour, and she said this area is not all Italians and Irish. It’s mixed. There’s a lot of Spanish here. She just thought that it was not publicizing the information.

The gen-ed parents I interviewed, the black and Latino parents, they just thought they went to their zoned school. They didn’t really know there were other options out there. Some of them did, but they just said if you’re working and you don’t have a lot parents to talk to, if your preschool isn’t telling you, it’s just harder to know.

Are the G&T programs actually better?
[Parents] didn’t really see a lot of difference between the two programs academically. Both programs have the standard DOE curriculum. They said in the gifted program they might move faster. They might go into more depth into certain topics.

There’s less differentiation because [students] all took that test and technically passed it, but those [gifted and talented] teachers will have to differentiate because some of those students were getting prepped for the test and it wasn’t a reflection of their intelligence.

On “giftedness”
I realized the majority of white parents didn’t think the G&T tests that the DOE offers adequately reflects giftedness. They relate it more to their background and knowing how to work the system. The majority of parents wouldn’t call it gifted even if they’re in the program. They would say they are bright or they’re smart and they have the background from going to preschool and the exposure to everything that they’ve been exposed to before.

On the stakes attached to the tests
There’s kind of this underlying uneasiness about all this pressure they’re placing on their children to perform. One mother said that getting her child into gifted and talented was saving her half a million on private school tuition, so it’s really high stakes.

What are the solutions?
I kind of lay out two options in my book. The first is, take G&T program and try to identify a more diverse student population [to qualify]. I think the DOE is trying to do that by switching the test to make it harder to prep for.

My suggestion would be to use multiple criteria, and waiting to test until children are older, so it doesn’t reflect their advantaged background and they have some type of formal schooling before they are tested, and providing outreach to lower-income families about the process.

The second is to phase out G&T programs and to create more integrated school settings.

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