By Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
With just three months left in his tenure, former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced one of his most controversial education proposals: to phase out the city’s highly coveted gifted and talented program for elementary schoolers, which often segregate students by race and class.
Instead, the city vowed to replace it with a new, yet-to-be-defined model available to every student.
The promised changes kicked off a flurry of engagement sessions with parents and educators in each of the city’s 32 school districts. The city convened an expert panel and reviewed reams of research. Education department leaders put it all together into a 32-page vision, called Brilliant NYC, for a more inclusive approach to gifted education where a single test given to preschoolers would no longer be the gatekeeper for admissions.
The blueprint, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, seems to have been quietly shelved as a new administration took over, promising a different approach.
Now, three months into Mayor Eric Adams’ tenure, his schools chancellor, David Banks, said he will soon announce what will happen to the program. The new mayor and chancellor have indicated that dramatic changes are off the table.
Families, meanwhile, remain in limbo on how their children will be admitted to gifted programs next year. Advocates who had hoped to see significant reforms feel like they are starting all over again.
The city has long grappled with the program’s vast underrepresentation of its Black and Latino students: They fill only 14% of gifted seats, but make up nearly 60% of kindergartners citywide. But attempts to reform the program have often been met with backlash, including from Asian-American families whose children make up a majority of enrollment in the classes, and who worry that any changes will shut their children out of high-performing schools.
In public appearances and town halls, Banks has dropped breadcrumbs about how he may reshape the program. It could continue in kindergarten, which makes New York City an outlier — many other districts don’t start gifted programming until later grades — but with other opportunities to enter the program in third grade.
Banks has also suggested the previous approach of using a single test given to preschoolers to determine admissions is unlikely to stick. Many critics blame the test as a main driver for segregation in gifted classrooms.
“G is not going away with us. There’ll be some changes,” Banks said at a recent town hall with parents in Manhattan’s District 3. “We’re looking to expand on a G model in the third grade. We’re not going to eliminate the G at the kindergarten level. But I will tell you — I’m not a big fan of testing 4-year-olds.”
Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning appointed by Banks, said at the town hall meeting that the city’s approach will be “some redesign in some of our current schools, and some new opportunities as well.” She pointed to the need for more teacher training and curriculum.
Typically, about 15,000 out of 65,000 rising kindergarteners have vied for just 2,500 seats in gifted programs across New York City. The biggest flashpoint — and question mark — is over the idea of expanding the city’s gifted programs.
Under the city’s traditional approach, seats were so limited that most students who qualified for gifted classes based on their test scores didn’t get admitted. Programs were also often inaccessible, especially in the city’s low-income neighborhoods where there were no gifted programs because few students took the admissions test or scored high enough to enroll.
De Blasio’s plan called for phasing out the city’s current programs, where students are separated into classrooms at about 100 schools as well as five citywide schools that are solely for children with the highest scores on the admissions test. But he and others argued it would be an expansion, with “accelerated” learning opportunities available to all students.
That approach would end the separate classrooms and even entire schools that currently serve students who qualified based on the test — a goal of diversity advocates. Critics, however, said that amounted to ending gifted and talented, arguing it’s difficult for teachers to meet the needs of students who are on so many different academic levels in the same classroom.
Lucas Liu, the president of the Community Education Council in District 3, did not support de Blasio’s plans for reform and thought it’s too late for dramatic changes to admission for next year’s incoming class.
When the city had to pivot quickly last year on gifted admissions — following a surprise move by the citywide Panel for Educational Policy refusing to renew a contract for the test —it ended up using a system of recommendations and a lottery.
“We’re just running out of time. Schools need to prepare. Parents need to prepare, teachers need to prepare,” Liu said.
Liu is also a co-president of an advocacy group called PLACE — Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education — which has pushed for maintaining separate programs for gifted students.
He said the Banks administration has met with the presidents of local education councils to get feedback on how to move forward on gifted and talented. The new administration is listening, he believes.
“They’re saying all the right things,” Liu said. “G is expanding. That’s not a question anymore, So the next part is: How? How do we do it?”
On the other hand, those who hoped for the end of separate, segregated gifted programs feel like they’re having to start their activism all over.
De Blasio finally came around to pursuing changes in the gifted program after years of lobbying, and official recommendations from city-appointed working groups that went largely ignored.
Eventually, the pandemic forced his hand, with the Panel for Educational Policy’s rebuke of the admissions test contract. Panel members cited concerns about diversity, in the midst of historic civil rights demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd, as well as health and safety during the pandemic, since the test was administered in person.
Forced to come up with an alternative, education department leaders went on a 45-day sprint, collecting feedback from 4,000 people to draft a plan that included project-based learning. It was supposed to be phased in over four years.
Allison Roda, a professor at Molloy College who is a staunch advocate for ending the current model, contributed an analysis of research for the de Blasio administration’s report. Her understanding was that the next step would include a push to train teachers and other educators in a radically different approach.
“It’s a shift from a deficit model that labels students, segregates them, and separates them into separate classrooms… to a belief that all students have brilliance and it’s the school’s job to cultivate that,” Roda said.
Instead, the report does not appear to have been released publicly. Roda and at least one other researcher involved said they haven’t heard from the new administration.
“It did give me hope,” Roda said. “But it was, like everything else, political. And the timing was off.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.