New York public schools to end gifted and talented program

FILE In this Aug. 17, 2021 file photo, students write and draw positive affirmations on poster board at P.S. 5 Port Morris, an elementary school in The Bronx borough of New York. New York City will phase out its program for gifted and talented students that critics say favors whites and Asian American students, while enrolling disproportionately few Black and Latino children, in the nation's largest and arguably most segregated school system. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File) (Brittainy Newman, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NEW YORK – New York City will phase out its program for gifted and talented students that critics say favors whites and Asian American students, while enrolling disproportionately few Black and Latino children, in the nation's largest school system.

Starting in the next school year, the city will stop giving 4-year-olds a screening test used to identify gifted and talented students, according to an outline of the plan released by the city's education department on Friday.

The program currently admits only 2,500 pupils a year out of 65,000 kindergartners citywide.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the change will help tens of thousands get advanced instruction, instead of just a select few.

“The era of judging 4-year-olds based on a single test is over," he said in a statement. “Every New York City child deserves to reach their full potential, and this new, equitable model gives them that chance.”

The city will instead train all kindergarten teachers to provide accelerated learning in which students use more advanced skills such as robotics, computer coding, community organizing or advocacy on projects while staying in their regular classrooms. The city will also screen students going into third grade to determine if they would benefit from accelerated learning in various subjects while staying in their classrooms.

Despite being among the most diverse cities in the United States, New York City's public schools have long been derided as among the most segregated. Its gifted and talented program has underscored many of the educational system's inequities.

About three-fourths of the roughly 16,000 students are white or of Asian descent, while Black and Latino students make up the rest — despite accounting for about two-thirds of the city's 1 million public school children.

Toni Smith-Thompson, who has three children in public schools and who has joined other parents in calling for the dismantling of the city's gifted and talented program, said the mayor's move was long overdue.

“It’s really hard in a city that has so much inequality — that has a history of so much inequality — to set up an exclusionary system and then pretend like people are going to equally be able to compete. Public education should not actually be rooted in competition because it’s the right that everyone should have," Smith-Thompson said.

The program has spawned legal challenges over the years, with opponents charging that it imposed a caste system in public schools.

“After years of fighting, the mayor has finally made a step to end, or start dismantling, this institutionalized racism that we have in our schools,” said another parent, Kaliris Salas.

A report released in June by UCLA's Civil Rights Project was especially damning.

“Two-thirds of a century after the Supreme Court said that segregated schools are ‘inherently unequal’ New York is a national epicenter of racial segregation in unequal schools,” the project's director, Gary Orfield, wrote in the report's forward.

Some Asian American activists have resisted dismantling the program, arguing that it has given their children educational opportunities to get into better schools and lift themselves out of poverty.

“It is going to particularly hurt the families that do not have much and who do not have access to private schools or charter schools — or who cannot afford to move out of New York City for better education opportunities for their children,” said Donghui Zang, who unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat on the City Council on a platform partly built on educational opportunities for low-income immigrants.

PLACE NYC, a group advocating the expansion of the gifted and talented program, said it was outraged that the mayor announced his plans without advanced notice. The group is planning a rally next week to protest the mayor's move, which it predicts will generate chaos among thousands of families.

Because of term limits, de Blasio will leave office at the end of the year and much of the work to implement the changes could fall on his successor.

“He’s tossed a grenade in the room and walked away,” said Kaushik Das, a leader of the group and now a member of one of the city's education councils.

City education officials will hold community meetings in the coming months to discuss the changes with parents and teachers and roll out the full details right before de Blasio’s term ends.

The next mayor could change the program yet again.

Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee who is expected to become the next mayor in November’s election, “will assess the plan and reserves his right to implement policies based on the needs of students and parents, should he become mayor,” said Adams spokesperson Evan Thies.

“Clearly the Department of Education must improve outcomes for children from lower-income areas,” Thies said.

Curtis Sliwa, the Republican mayoral candidate, called de Blasio’s announcement disgraceful and said he would immediately reimplement the program should he become mayor.

New York City currently has 80 elementary schools that offer some accelerated instruction. City officials have not detailed how much it would cost to expand that to all 800 elementary schools.

The plan, called Brilliant NYC, will require the hiring of additional teachers who are trained to provide that instruction.

“As a lifelong educator, I know every child in New York City has talents that go far beyond what a single test can capture and the Brilliant NYC plan will uncover their strengths so they can succeed,” said Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter.

The plan was first reported by the New York Times on Friday.