Sorting the Students

In the face of parent pleas, Indianapolis Public Schools board modifies Butler lab expansion plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Luba Winship and her family live on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She is concerned that her youngest son may not be able to enroll at School 60.

The Indianapolis Public Schools board approved a plan to convert School 55 to the second magnet school in partnership with Butler University Thursday. But in the face of pleas from crying students and parents, the board modified the proposal.

The challenge facing the board was finding a way to accommodate families from across the district who are currently at School 60, the first Butler lab magnet, while also recreating the same school culture at a second campus and containing transportation costs.

The board is committed to replicating successful programs throughout the district, and families need to enroll in newly created programs for them to succeed, said board member Michael O’Connor.

“Some difficult decisions are going to have to be made,” he added.

The decision to convert School 55 to a magnet is the district’s latest move away from the traditional model of assigning students to schools by neighborhood in favor of an approach that encourages families to choose schools by academic focus and philosophy.

Because School 55 will be the second Butler lab magnet, the board designated boundaries for the two schools that aim to reduce transportation costs, balance the number of children eligible for each school and keep the schools diverse. Families who live on the east side of the district will be eligible to apply to School 55. On the west side, families will apply to School 60.

For the 160 students who are currently at School 60 but live in the School 55 boundaries, the initial proposal offered what was meant to be a compromise: They would be allowed to remain at School 60, but the district would no longer bus their children. If they chose to move to School 55, there would be busing.

But the offer did little to appease the parents who delivered impassioned pleas to the board ahead of the vote Thursday.

Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60, live on the east side, in the School 55 boundaries.

Spencer went to the microphone with his mother to read a letter to the board. “There are many people out there that can’t drive their children to school,” he said, before his sobs overwhelmed him and he had trouble speaking.

Driving her son to school every day isn’t an option for her family because she and her husband work, Goodson said.

“Zero of Spencer’s closest friends are also zoned for 55,” she said. “My heart ached when I realized that quite possibly Spencer is going to be separated from people he has cared about for over half his life.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60.

Estimates suggest that providing busing for east side students could cost more than $200,000 per year, or over $1,000 per child, said IPS staffer Joe Gramelspacher.

But in the end, the pleas of parents like Goodson swayed the board. Although they approved the proposal to make School 55 a Butler lab school, they also voted to continue providing transportation to current east side families at School 60 for one year.

“This is the cost of doing business,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “If you are going to expand programs there is going to be an additional cost at least initially.”

But there are other issues raised by current School 60 families that the board didn’t address.

Luba Winship also lives on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She raised concerns that with the proposed boundaries, her youngest child, who is not yet in school, may not be able to win a spot at School 60 because students in the school’s boundaries will have an advantage in the admissions lottery.

“We live less than a mile away from our school,” she said. But “as proposed our last child will have to go to a separate school from his siblings and travel over two and half miles to do so.”

The Butler lab program uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which emphasizes hands-on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. It began at School 60 about five years ago, and since then, it has become one of the district’s most popular magnet programs. Last year 266 students were placed on the school’s waitlist.

In contrast, enrollment at School 55 has been falling, and the elementary school with grades K-6 enrolled just 172 students last year, far below capacity. When it becomes a magnet school, current students at School 55 will be encouraged to stay. The district plans to expand the school up to 8th grade (something parents pushed for), and in order to fit all the students IPS expects, it will add six portable units to the building.

The effort to expand magnet schools goes hand-in-hand with other changes taking place in the district that emphasize options for families and students instead of neighborhood schools. This fall, the district will use Enroll Indy, common enrollment website that allows families to apply for charter schools and magnet schools in one place. And next year, IPS will convert all of its high schools to magnet programs, where students choose the school’s they attend based on their academic and career interests rather than geography.

School 55 was the last remaining neighborhood school in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor. Beginning next year, students who live in that vast territory will have a single boundary school, School 43, which has a new principal following years of instability and low test scores.

The other schools in the northside area offer a broad spectrum of options — Montessori, International Baccalaureate and gifted programs — but they have one thing in common: Students must apply and space is limited.

At most of the district’s magnet schools, families apply the year before and students are admitted by lottery if there are more applicants than seats. Some students get priority in the lottery, including those who have siblings at the school, who live within a zone about a half mile around the school and whose parents work for the district.

The big sort

Do selective admissions actually help middle schools choose the best students? This Manhattan dad says no.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 recently gathered to learn about the middle school admissions process. Eric Goldberg wants District 2 to end selective admissions methods that many middle schools use determine admissions.

Eric Goldberg wants to change the debate around whether public schools should be allowed to select their students based on test scores, report card grades, and other factors.

A parent leader on the Community Education Council in District 2, Goldberg is proposing a resolution to put a hold on that that practice, known as “screening,” across the district’s middle schools. District 2 stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Many question whether sorting students by academic ability is fair, and critics say it exacerbates segregation. Goldberg’s criticism is different: He questions whether the sorting mechanisms actually work to distinguish among students and pick those with the most academic potential. 

“From the basic design to the implementation, this process is riddled with issues,” he said. “It makes it essentially worthless.”

His resolution would be merely symbolic but would add to the growing criticism of the methods many New York City schools use to select students. Community leaders in one Brooklyn district have called for an end to selective admissions in their middle schools, and Chancellor Richard Carranza recently called screening “antithetical” to public education.

Like other critics of the screening process, Goldberg is worried about whether the current system is equitable. But he also thinks that starting with more basic questions is a better way to convince parents that something has to change.

“We’ve set up this tension between a system that values merit and a system that values diversity,” he said. “But we haven’t asked… is this system actually determining who has merit?”

Goldberg said he has some support from fellow council members, who are expected to vote on the resolution this fall after a series of community discussions. Ultimately, the council doesn’t have the power to change admissions in the district — that’s up to the Department of Education and local school leaders. But parent buy-in has proven integral to pushing integration efforts elsewhere, and a show of support for such a dramatic step could serve as an important signal to city officials.

When talking to Chalkbeat, Goldberg had this to say about the flaws he sees in the system, and what he thinks it will take to accomplish meaningful change.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you proposing for District 2 middle schools?

We would like District 2 to place a moratorium on screening until we can have a full assessment of the process, because our belief is that it is unfair to keep it in place and subject another set of students to a deeply flawed process.

In your view, what are the flaws?

There’s no standardized grading system in place. One school could have a scale of 1 to 4 for grading, another school could have a scale of 1 to 100. There is no oversight in place to ensure that grade distribution within schools, within a classroom, is somewhat standardized — let alone across schools.

If you look at other aspects like testing, it’s clear and it’s known that many students are tutored for the [state] test. It’s clear that these tests were designed as diagnostic assessments rather than assessments to be used for selection. We’ve pushed back on whether these state tests should be used for teacher evaluations, but yet, for some reason, we sit on the sidelines and allow our students to be assessed by them.

If you go to attendance — which to me is probably the most pernicious of all — attendance for 10-year-olds is schools choosing families…For a 10-year-old to get to school on-time, they are fully dependant on their caregiver.

The last area is school-based assessments and interviews. Many of the schools administer their own math or English tests and assessments. But no one has reviewed those tests to make sure that they’re up to standards in terms of being reliable and valid indicators of student performance. Many of these schools also do interviews, but yet, the interviewers have had no training, and there’s no standards in place for how those interviews are run. They don’t have unconscious bias training. And there’s really no transparency around what questions are asked and whether or not they’re valid.

Why are you focusing on whether this process is reliable, rather than on whether it’s fair — as other critics are doing?

There will be a lot of discussion and tension around the rationale for screens and what purpose they serve, around the impact that screens have and whether that impact is fair and equitable. But I think, at the most basic level, we should have more agreement and unanimity to see the flaws in this process. My belief is that as people understand how deeply flawed this process is, that they will take a step back and assess screening as a whole.

So is this just the first step before diving into the bigger question of whether screening is fair?

Those are conversations that we certainly should be having as a school system and as a community. But I think it takes away some of the pressure and high-stakes nature of that conversation if we can get consensus that this system is flawed in terms of its design and implementation, and we should end a flawed system.

District 2 has been debating how to make its schools more diverse for some time now. What have you accomplished so far?  

The way District 2 has made progress is, first, around transparency. The fact that schools are actually sharing (admissions) rubrics today is a big change from where we were two or three years ago. But there’s still a huge gap because the schools still don’t share what score on a rubric actually led to an admission.

We’ve been able to engage schools and principals in a deeper conversation around middle school admissions, and some of the schools have taken what I think are big steps around applying for, and now implementing, diversity in admissions set-asides for low-income students at three of our most selective schools.

I also think we’ve made strides in having conversations with the community, but we haven’t been able to drive to more significant structural changes. One of the tensions that we see — and that probably a lot of districts see — is do we work toward incremental change, or do we work on holistic, system-wide changes?

Given that tension, what do you think needs to happen?

First and foremost, it’s really our middle school principals, and District 2 administration, and the DOE, who right now have the sole discretion, power, and authority to set the admissions standards for District 2.

Second is continuing to build support within the parent community in District 2 around changes to the middle school admissions process. One of the difficulties there is that constituency, which often are fourth-grade parents, is that once they’re through the process, if you ask them to reflect on the process, they would have significant issues with how it affected their kids. But once they pass through and move on to middle school, then it recedes into the background.

I think there’s also a message that’s being sent by the new chancellor that this is a deeply flawed system and many of the commonly held assumptions that we have in place, we need to question and challenge. Our principals and administrators need to bring that message forward to action.

Within the parent community, there will be debate, discussion, and contention. Our school leaders, people look to them for guidance, and they have the respect and reputation within the community to actually drive change. My hope is that Chancellor Carranza is giving all them more space to speak on and advocate for what they think is right.

What would a better middle school admissions system look like in District 2?

I think that this should be a collaborative development of a system that values our students and values the education environment that we want. I look to the community to come up with ideas.

I want to maintain student choice but I don’t believe there’s any value in assessment and selection of our students. So I don’t believe there should be any screens in place.

This system continues to work for select people and select subgroups, and those are the people who want us to perpetuate [it]. They are people of financial means, people with time resources, people with social capital. They are resourced in a way that works for them. But for 10- and 11-year-olds, we need a system that works for everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Each of these 10-year-olds has incredible potential. This screening system asks us to make distinctions around potential with tools that tell us nothing. At best, they’re telling us about their past performance, their family support, and maybe what they’ve been exposed to outside of school.

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
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.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Many parents and alumni have criticized the mayor’s plan, saying integration efforts should start much earlier with gifted and talented programs. Some are even calling for a new approach to determining who is gifted.

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative has not lobbied to keep the specialized high school exam in place.