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New Explorations into Science Technology and Math

New Explorations into Science Technology and Math

Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

At a vaunted program in Manhattan, parents sound off on proposed changes to gifted programs

Days after a mayoral task force recommended eliminating gifted and talented programs on the basis that they fuel segregation, parents at one of the city’s most coveted gifted programs are anxiously anticipating their school becoming engulfed in the political storm.

As parents dropped their children off at New Explorations into Science Technology and Math in Manhattan, which only admits students for kindergarten who ace a single test when they’re four, some acknowledged a need for change while others said gifted programs are essential and should be expanded.

Olga Osminkina-Jones, who grew up in Russia, said she chose the school because she wanted her daughter to have access to accelerated coursework and dismissed the idea that the test is discriminatory.

“It’s all merit based, there’s no bias,” said Osminkina-Jones. “There’s plenty of diversity — there are kids from all walks of life.” Her daughter, who started first grade on Thursday, is biracial.

Kyle Jones and Olga Osminkina-Jones dropped their daughter off at NEST+M on the first day of school.

Kyle Jones and Olga Osminkina-Jones dropped their daughter off at NEST+M on the first day of school.

Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

Osminkina-Jones said eliminating gifted programs could have the reverse effect of what integration advocates are hoping for by driving families away from the public school system entirely. That’s a point recognized by the task force, which recommended turning to other “enrichment” models and opening more magnet schools, tactics that have helped attract middle-class families and integrate programs in other cities.

Similar to the city’s other gifted programs, New Explorations (also known as NEST+M), is nearly 75% white and Asian in a school system that is mostly black and Hispanic. Only a quarter of students come from poor families, compared with three-quarters of students citywide.

The school is one of just five citywide schools that only offer gifted programs, drawing elementary school students who have all scored in the 97th percentile or above on the city’s gifted exam. (NEST+M also has a middle and high school with separate entrance requirements.)

[Related: New York’s gifted program is at the center of a new round of diversity debates. Here’s how it works.]

Other parents said they believe the system is flawed. Amy Mogulescu said gifted programs are “clearly producing very problematic results” and that it’s “ridiculous to test 4-year-olds.”

Mogulescu said she feels torn about sending her two daughters to NEST+M. She noted there are benefits, such as PTA-funded teaching assistants who help manage classrooms and activities like recess. However, she said the reading curriculum is not substantially different from most other elementary schools, though she said the math program is more advanced. 

A teacher at Brooklyn Latin, a specialized high school that admits students on the basis of a single test, Mogulescu sees parallels between the debate about gifted programs and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to diversify specialized high schools by scrapping the admissions test.

She said the intensity of the backlash to de Blasio’s specialized schools plan came as a surprise, but thinks the debate about whether to rethink gifted programs will be even more fraught.

“People get into such a panic about kindergarten,” she said. “Politically, this will be even more challenging.”

And some parents acknowledged feeling conflicted about how or whether to change the gifted system.

“As a mother of color, I think it should be expanded not taken away,” said Cheryl M, who spoke on condition that her full name be withheld. “I have a lot of mixed feelings.”

The panel that recommended eliminating gifted programs said they could be replaced with “schoolwide enrichment models” — an approach that tasks school staffers with identifying students’ interests and then developing mini-courses, more detailed units of study, and electives for older students centered on those topics.

“Enrichment programs in every school would be a great solution to the problem,” said Olga Peydan, the parent of a kindergarten student at NEST+M, though she said tracking some students into more advanced classes is still important to make sure they are appropriately challenged. “We have so many gifted and talented kids and they don’t have a placement for them.”

The decision about the future of gifted programs ultimately rests with de Blasio, who has been tight-lipped about whether he’ll accept to proposal to eliminate programs. At a press conference on Thursday, he offered a small hint that changes could be coming. The single test admissions system, he said, is a “real concern.”