diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

By the numbers

Where specialized high school students come from (and where they don’t)

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

Early every school day, private charter buses rumble through the Upper West Side to ferry students from the city’s wealthiest school district into one of the poorest.

The students head to Bronx High School of Science and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, just two of the city’s coveted specialized high schools that draw virtually no students from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Across New York City, just a handful of school districts and middle schools send an outsized share of students to specialized high schools, celebrated for their track record of preparing graduates for Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers.

The numbers are striking: Students from only 10 middle schools make up a quarter of all specialized high school admissions offers — a total of 1,274 offers, according to data provided to Chalkbeat. That’s almost four times more than all of the admissions offers to students living in the city’s 10 poorest districts combined.

That reality could be upended with a controversial proposal put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio to overhaul admissions to specialized high schools. Rather than admit students based on the results of a single test, the city is pushing a plan to admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of their state test scores and report card grades

The proposal would require a change in state law, and lawmakers have already shelved the plan for this year. But if city officials can persuade lawmakers to approve the change, it would cut off a reliable pipeline into the city’s most elite high schools — a tiny subset of selective middle schools — and draw more top performers from every corner of the five boroughs.

ZIP code is limiting destiny right now in New York City,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference.

Critics, though, say the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test helps preserve the high standards at the schools, considered by many to be the crown jewels of the system. They suggest other ways for diversifying the schools, such as making test preparation more widespread.

Chalkbeat compared education department data of specialized high school offers in schools and districts across the city. Here are some highlights from the numbers.

Some districts send many students to specialized high schools, while others send almost none.

Affluent District 2 — which stretches across Lower Manhattan, most of Chinatown and the Upper East Side —  accounts for almost 13 percent of all specialized high school admission offers. That number is even more eye-popping when you consider that it enrolls only about 4 percent of all the city’s public school eighth graders. 

Click on the map to learn which districts send the most students to specialized high schools.

The 10 districts that are home to the most black and Hispanic students made up about 4 percent of admissions offers.

Just because a student was offered admission, that doesn’t mean that he or she will ultimately choose to go to a specialized high school. In fact, research has shown that black and Hispanic students, and girls, are less likely to accept their offers.

The district figures include admissions offers that were made to students in private schools and those who were homeschooled. Private school students earned about 13 percent of offers.

A tiny number of schools send a disproportionate number of students to specialized high schools

The disparities are so large that just two middle schools — The Christa McAuliffe School and Mark Twain I.S. 239 — get more students into specialized high schools than the city’s 10 poorest districts combined. (One caveat about these numbers: The district offers are based on where students live, not where they attended school. So it’s possible that students living in the poorest districts are enrolled at Mark Twain, which is open to all students regardless of where they live in the city.)

“If you think it’s unlikely that only a couple of dozen schools have a monopoly on talent, then we have a problem,” said Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor for the city who has endorsed de Blasio’s proposal to change specialized high school admissions.

All together, the top 10 middle schools enroll only about 18 percent black and Hispanic students. They are among the most sought-after in the city, but they are also extremely selective. 

Many top-sending middle schools select their students based on test scores, their own exams, interviews, attendance, and other factors.

The numbers get at an ongoing debate over whether schools should be allowed to “screen” students in this way: While some say high-performers are better served in classrooms where most students are like them, others say that separating students by ability exacerbates segregation because black and Hispanic students are more likely to struggle in school.

Among the middle schools sending the most students to specialized high schools is Booker T. Washington in District 3, which is at the center of another contentious integration battle. The superintendent there has proposed setting aside a quarter of seats at every district middle school for students who are low-performing.

The plan has sparked an uproar from parents who worry their high-achieving kids will be shut out of the most sought-after middle schools. The city’s numbers sheds light on the backlash: More than 53 percent of Booker T. Washington eighth graders are offered a spot at specialized high schools.

Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has pushed to integrate the district’s middle schools, said the current system fuels competition for the few schools that feed students into top-tier high schools.

“I think it’s part of a wider New York angst,” she said. “We’re looking downstream like, ‘What elementary school goes to what middle school, goes to which high school, goes to which college?'”

She also said that it calls into question the city’s high school choice process, which is supposed to allow students to aim for any school, regardless of where they may live.

“We certainly wouldn’t want middle schools to be a limiting factor,” she said. “We would want all students to have the full range of options, whether it’s for middle school or for high school.”

end of the road

Specialized high school admissions bill is on hold until next year, Heastie says

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

A bill to eliminate the specialized high school admissions test likely does not have a path forward this year in the New York State legislature.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he would take up the issue next session, likely stymying any chance that the bill will come before the Assembly this year for a vote.

“We want to come up with something that is good for all students and so I think over the next few months and into next session we’ll be having discussions with all of the stakeholders,” Heastie said, which was first reported in Capital Tonight. Heastie said he made the decision after talking to members of his party and the Asian Pacific task force, which represents a community that has come out in force against the proposal.

The bill already had an extremely difficult path forward this year. Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his weight behind the plan only a few weeks before the end of the legislative session, and lawmakers expressed little interest in tackling the controversial bill in such a short amount of time.

The bill had cleared the Assembly’s education committee but faced very long odds of passing in the Senate. Not only has the Senate been struggling with a stalemate this session, the chair of the Senate’s education committee said the committee had no plans to meet again before the end of the year, according to the New York Post.

Still, Heastie’s hesitance to tackle the bill is telling of how divisive the issue is among lawmakers. Many legislators even Democratic lawmakers whose support the mayor will likely need to pass the bill have come out against the current plan to overhaul specialized high school admissions.

The bill backed by the mayor would phase out the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is currently the only way students can earn a spot at the set of eight elite public high schools. Instead, it would use middle school grades and test scores to determine admission.

The mayor’s rationale for the change is that it will allow more black and Hispanic students to attend the schools. Currently only about 10 percent of admissions offers go to black and Hispanic students, while about two-thirds of the city’s students are black and Hispanic.

But the plan is already facing intense opposition from alumni groups and leaders in the Asian American community. Asian students comprise 62 percent of students at the city’s prestigious schools.

This story has been updated to reflect that Chalkbeat has confirmed Heastie’s statement.