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NYC unveils changes to ‘gifted’ program, adding 1,000 seats to third grade

Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city’s diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

City leaders announced an expansion of gifted seats in third grade. Above, kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented school, learn how to read a number line in November 2016.

Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

More students will have the chance to enroll in New York City’s gifted programs, officials announced Thursday.

But despite major changes promised by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in the face of stark segregation in gifted programs, the new administration decided to largely stick to the status quo.

For the 2022-23 school year, the education department plans to add 1,000 new seats across the city for gifted programs launching in third grade. 

When it comes to kindergarten programs, the city plans to screen every pre-K student for admission. Those who don’t attend a city preschool can request an interview at district offices, an education department official said. 

Additionally, officials aim to add 100 seats in kindergarten “gifted and talented” classrooms so that every district will now have a gifted program starting at that grade. Some only offer the program beginning in third grade, an attempt in recent years to make it more fair for students in neighborhoods where few had historically qualified to enroll in kindergarten.

Admission in kindergarten will continue to be based on teacher recommendations — a change that began during the pandemic — in lieu of admission based solely on a test administered to preschoolers. Education department officials said the shift has resulted in a more diverse group of incoming kindergarteners this year, but have not responded to numerous requests for demographic information. 

In third grade, the top 10% of students in each school will be invited to apply, based on grades in four core subject areas. Currently, third grade programs rely on teacher recommendations and other factors. 

“Through this expansion, we are providing more opportunities for accelerated learning to more families, while providing an equitable, fair process to identify the students who will excel with accelerated learning,” Chancellor David Banks said in a statement.

Still, the program will continue to enroll a tiny fraction of the city’s students. Every year, more than 60,000 kindergarteners enroll in public schools. With the expansion, only about 2,500 of them — 4.2% — will be served in gifted classrooms. 

Officials did not provide information on how many students are currently enrolled in gifted programs that start in third grade and did not clarify how many schools would get gifted programs for third graders. Many of those details still need to be worked out, said Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning, Carolyne Quintana. 

De Blasio had called for ending the current model, which separates students into separate classrooms or even entire schools. Gifted classrooms enroll few Black and Latino students as well as those who come from low-income families, have disabilities, are learning English as a new language, or live in temporary housing. Advocates for reform also argue that concentrating students who are already performing well can also make it more difficult to meet the needs of students who are in classrooms where most are falling behind.

De Blasio’s plan, called Brilliant NYC, proposed to offer “accelerated” learning to every student starting in kindergarten and then would screen students for subject-specific acceleration in third grade.

But the outgoing mayor left it up to the current administration to implement the controversial reforms, which many criticized as essentially ending gifted programs. Even before formally taking office, Mayor Eric Adams had made it clear he would take a different approach. 

Deborah Alexander, a member of the Community Education Council in Queens District 30, said that maintaining separate gifted programs was a “top priority” for parents like her. She argued that, without them, it might be too difficult for teachers to meet the needs of a wide range of learners. 

“It is impossible to differentiate in a class with 32 kids. I’ve sat in a class. I don’t think that is a functioning model,” said Alexander, who is also the vice president of PLACE, or Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education, an advocacy group that has fiercely lobbied to preserve the current model.   

While next year’s programs won’t look much different, more changes could be on the horizon. Banks said the administration will launch its own round of public engagement about the future of gifted programs. Quintana said the city is also looking to improve the teaching that happens in gifted classrooms, and provide more uniformity across programs. 

“It’s probably the most important part for us, in terms of developing this gifted and talented program,” she said. “We’re looking into different opportunities, different programs and a consistent curriculum that has criteria not only for teachers, but also for leaders so that we can really establish something that is, at the very least, common standards.”

New York City is an outlier for starting gifted programs in kindergarten. Most other districts don’t begin such offerings until later, when assessments may be a more accurate measure of student ability. The city’s expansion in third grade seems to take that into account. 

But parents and integration advocates will likely remain skeptical of the city’s approach. 

NeQuan McLean, a parent leader in Brooklyn’s District 16, previously fought for his neighborhood to have a gifted program. In 2016, the city finally launched one starting in third grade. But McLean and other parent leaders quickly changed their mind after seeing it in practice. 

He said it caused “a divide in the school,” and that few parents ended up enrolling because it would require transferring schools. 

“It was just really a disaster that was not beneficial for anyone,” McLean said in an interview before the city announced its plans for this year. “It did not work.” 

Allison Roda, a professor at Molloy College who advised the previous administration on how to overhaul its current programs, noted that most of the country’s gifted classrooms — regardless of what grade they begin in — are segregated. Expanding the current model in third grade isn’t likely to make classrooms more representative, she said in an interview prior to the city’s announcement. 

“It’s just based on competition, and an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality, and winners and losers,” she said. “We’ve critiqued this program as only serving a small percentage of students. and we’ve critiqued them for segregation. We’ve critiqued them for the advantage that students received all the way through, not just in elementary but beyond, and I think they need to address all of those.”

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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