First Person

The city’s gifted education system needs to shift, one school at a time

I visited BELL Academy M.S. 294 in Queens on a Wednesday morning in May to see a special breed of education in action. In one room, I watched a group of three students photograph a miniature scene made up of Legos and paper cutouts—then make a slight adjustment to the scene—and photograph again. Several thousand frames later, they will have completed a stop-motion animation video. Across the hall, a student showed off a painting she made to raise awareness about bullying, inspired by the social commentary in the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In the hallway, students walked by with a tablet taking pictures for the school newspaper.

As an education policy researcher at The Century Foundation, I study the academic and social benefits of school integration. I examine research, conduct interviews, and visit schools to identify promising practices that promote diversity and inclusion in schools. I came to BELL in search of a more equitable approach to gifted education, and found a model I think other city schools should examine closely.

New York City’s gifted and talented programs have a long history of creating socioeconomic and racial segregation within schools. But BELL Academy offers a promising alternative: extending enrichment opportunities to all students.

Under the city’s current G&T system, screening happens at a young age—typically preschool—when children’s educational opportunities are largely a product of their socioeconomic status. Students are admitted based on scores from a standardized test, giving a leg up to families that can afford test prep and push for re-testing. And G&T programs typically serve students in self-contained classrooms, separating them from their peers.

According to a recent report from New York Appleseed, about 70 percent of kindergartners citywide in 2011 were black or Latino, while more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted and talented programs were white or Asian. Wealthier community school districts consistently have the most G&T placements. Schools with G&T programs may look racially and socioeconomically diverse while classrooms are highly segregated.

BELL Academy takes a different approach.

BELL was founded seven years ago by a team led by Cheryl Quatrano and Melinda Spataro, energetic veteran educators who worked in the city’s G&T programs for a number of years—and fought to make them more diverse. Quatrano and Spataro started BELL Academy based on an approach of “gifted education for all,” using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model developed by University of Connecticut professors Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis.

BELL is not a school for “gifted” students, and there are no screening criteria for admission. But all students at BELL receive tailored instruction designed around the core principles of gifted education: identifying students’ talents, enhancing curricula, differentiating assignments to ability, and providing enrichment opportunities.

The film, art, and journalism projects I saw unfolding were part of the school’s “enrichment clusters,” elective classes that give all students the chance to engage in in-depth projects outside of the regular curriculum that fit their interests and learning styles. In other schools, this style of education might be reserved for only the “best and brightest,” but the premise of SEM—backed by years of research—is that it is possible to expand enrichment programs to all students without sacrificing quality of instruction.

BELL teachers also use SEM as a way of modifying the regular classroom instruction to meet the individual needs of a wide range of students. All BELL students start the year by taking a survey of interests and talents that, when combined with academic data, gives teachers a good idea of how to engage and challenge each student. An online platform allows teachers to provide students with enrichment materials on engaging subjects at just the right reading level to challenge them, whether they’re reading six levels above their grade or three levels below.

The SEM approach also means that teachers are constantly looking for opportunities to extend students’ knowledge beyond the classroom. Principal David Abbot explained how a visit from Chancellor Carmen Fariña earlier this year turned into an opportunity for two students interested in animal rights to write persuasive essays on the proposed ban on horse-drawn carriages, which Fariña delivered to Mayor de Blasio.

Fariña is no stranger to SEM. Back when she was principal of P.S. 6 in the Upper East Side, she ended the school’s popular G&T track in favor of a schoolwide approach. During her tenure as schools chancellor, she has expressed skepticism about the current G&T model and said she favors “neighborhood schools that provide gifted practices to all students.”

But implementing SEM in today’s education climate is challenging. An effective SEM program requires teacher training, resources for enrichment supplies and opportunities, and small class sizes. And with schools under immense pressure to improve test scores, adopting a school model that takes time away from the core curriculum to nurture talents and promote inquiry can be a hard sell—particularly when all students, not just top scorers, participate in enrichment.

Making any changes to G&T programs is also a politically tricky proposition that requires going up against a vocal group of largely middle-class parents who support the status quo. Despite her support for SEM, Fariña said in a recent interview that she has no plans to change the current system.

In the meantime, the best chance for changing gifted education and expanding SEM in the city is one school at a time. During the seven years that it’s been open, BELL has shown consistent academic success and booming popularity. Quatrano and Spataro have gone on to start Veritas Academy, the first high school in the world to use SEM, which opened in Flushing, Queens, last fall. And over in Park Slope, Brooklyn, two schools recently ended their G&T programs over concerns of segregation.

So far, these experiments are succeeding. Maybe more will follow.

Have other ideas about the future of gifted and talented education in the city? Let us know here, and sign up for our morning newsletter for more news and viewpoints.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.