Thursday, September 4, 2008

McShane, parents fight mayor's policy on school gifted programs

by John DeSio
Riverdale Review, 09/04/2008

Few questions were answered and many were raised when gifted and talented programs in District #10 were discussed at this past week's meeting of the Community Education Council.

Marty Barr, the executive director of elementary school enrollment at the Department of Education, was met by a group of Riverdale parents concerned about the management of the district's gifted and talented programs.

Those parents, whose ranks included Community Board #8 Chairman Damian McShane, had their children tested to attend a gifted program in kindergarten—though there is no kindergarten program in District #10.

Barr noted that about one-third of gifted programs, including almost every Bronx program, start in first grade. To qualify for a gifted program, a child must score in the 90th percentile or above.

Barr noted that parents who had a child tested in kindergarten will be offered a seat in the first grade program, provided they are willing to send their child to any gifted program site.

In District #10 there are two such sites, one in P.S. 24 and another in P.S. 54, located on Webster Avenue near Fordham Road. Barr noted that so few parents elected to send their first graders to the P.S. 54 site this year that the school's program was cancelled, leaving only P.S. 24 to house a first grade gifted class this year.

"You child doesn't have to test again," said Barr. "That does not mean that we are guaranteeing every child that tested at the 90th percentile a seat."

Barr noted that the number of gifted seats is determined by the number of students who tested at the 90th percentile or above. He noted that the DOE could not guarantee a seat for a child unless that child's parents ranked every gifted site. If a parent selected to send their child only to P.S. 24 and not P.S. 54, they might not get a seat anywhere. Not enough children selected P.S. 54, said Barr, and therefore that program was cancelled.

"This will be an issue every single year," said Barr, adding that gifted program size will be decided not only by the number of children eligible but also by "whether families are willing to send their children to classes in particular schools."

Marvin Shelton, president of the Community Education Council, asked whether this means that the program would be eliminated from P.S. 54 altogether and placed in a different school. Barr said that he could not answer that question specifically and that the Department of Education was not necessarily wedded to placing the program in any school. He did note that if, year after year, a particular school could not field enough students for a gifted program, then the site would be reconsidered.

Barr noted that the program could grow if the Department of Education is successful in its community outreach programs. If more kids are tested, then more programs would be needed.

Parents at the meeting asked Barr how many of the children who turned down placement in P.S. 54 were zoned for Riverdale and Kingsbridge schools, particularly P.S. 24, P.S. 81 and P.S. 7. Barr reiterated several times that gifted and talented programs were not neighborhood programs and that it would not be equitable for Riverdale to host District #10's programs, regardless of the regional makeup of the students who tested in the 90th percentile.

"If we concentrated all the seats in G&T in one part of the district, then clearly we've created a hardship for anybody who lives at the other end of the district to get to those programs," said Barr.

He added later, "G&T is a district program. It is not a Riverdale program. It doesn't belong to any part of the district."

Barr said that the Department of Education's policy was to distribute programs as widely through any school district as possible in order to ensure that the maximum number of students could access them.

Barr was asked at one point why gifted programs could not be expanded in District #10 to the levels of a district such as Manhattan's District #2. He explained that some districts have a longer history of gifted programs and that their prevalence is part of an effort to keep more well-to-do families in the public school system, rather than see them leave for private schools.

"In places like Manhattan there are a large number of families that have other options because they can afford them," said Barr.

McShane, clearly upset with many of Barr's explanations, said that his biggest concerns were to see that Riverdale parents had a local program for their children and that gifted program placement did not exacerbate potential overcrowding at Riverdale schools. He pressed Barr for the number of children who qualified from Riverdale and Kingsbridge schools.

"I want to make sure there's a program available, locally, for them," said McShane of those parents.

Barr shot back, and implied that if Riverdale schools could not handle the gifted classes within their walls, they could be moved.

"G&T is not a local program, it is a district program," said Barr. "And if it turns out that there is no school in Riverdale that can accommodate the G&T program…then in the long run there may not be any G&T in that part of the district."

McShane also blasted the Department of Education for not seeking the input of local parents when it makes such decisions.

"We're not comfortable with the DOE making blanket statements and local policy without involvement from the local parents," said McShane. "That's the problem."

Exact information on the number of students accepted into District #10's gifted program, what schools they were zoned for and what schools they turned down was unavailable from the Department of Education as of press time.