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27th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 27, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Last spring, the city’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, spoke at a town meeting in Riverdale, a relatively affluent community tucked in a green corner of the Bronx, just south of the city line. He got an earful from angry parents.

Topping the list of grievances was the lack of programs for gifted and talented students. This is not due to a lack of such students. Hundreds of very bright children live in this neighborhood. In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, both Riverdale local elementary schools, P.S. 24 and P.S. 81, scored near the top in the city on standardized tests. The local middle school sent thousands of children to New York’s specialized high schools — the best indicator of how successfully a community deals with its best and brightest. Typically, over 100 children each year went on to the nearby Bronx High School of Science.

In 1994, a new superintendent for District 10, Irma Zardoya, brought a radical new “progressive” agenda of “equity” for all. This meant that gifted and talented classes were out. Principals eliminated classes organized by academic ability. The popular “double honors” program at Riverdale’s middle school was scrapped. Even the district’s science fair was eliminated, lest the self-esteem of some students be damaged by recognizing the accomplishments of others.

Region One, which Ms. Zardoya headed until her recent retirement, became the only of the city’s 10 regions without a single “self-contained” gifted and talented class to serve its more than 100,000 students.

The result has been a decline in test scores and an 80% drop in the number of admissions to specialized high schools. When I raised this with the chancellor some years ago, after he promoted Ms. Zardoya from district to regional superintendent, he ascribed this to “middle class flight.”

On the surface this is true. But from where I sit in this community, the middle class flight from the public schools was itself the result of Ms. Zardoya’s wrong-headed policies. In this case, the chicken of middle class flight was hatched from Ms. Zardoya’s ultra-progressive egg.

Under pressure from parents who saw their children deprived, the chancellor agreed to put a gifted and talented program in a Riverdale school. Unfortunately, this first-grade class, which is scheduled to begin next September, will be physically located in Riverdale’s P.S. 24, and the bright local children who qualify for a gifted and talented program will be given no preference to attend the program in their own neighborhood school.

Instead, they will have to compete with 4,000 other kindergarten children in nearly 40 elementary schools for 28 seats. If they score high, but not quite high enough, their parents will be given a cruel choice: Either subject your 6-year-old child to an hour-long bus ride, each way, every day, to the only other school in the district that will have such a program, or give up your child’s chance at a gifted and talented seat altogether.

The school with the district’s only other gifted and talented class does not inspire confidence. Since it opened its doors a decade ago, P.S. 54 has consistently been among the city’s worst performing schools, located in what many perceive as a dangerous neighborhood.

Nor does the school have much of a track record nurturing high performing students. On the recent English Language Arts test, not a single child in any grade, out of a total of 211 students tested, achieved Level 4, the highest category.

It is unlikely that any of the Riverdale parents will opt to bus their children to P.S. 54. A majority of parents on Manhattan’s West Side, faced with a similar choice opted their children out of the gifted and talented program.

The city’s new admission procedure for gifted and talented programs forces parents to rank by preference the schools to which they apply. Offers are then based on the combined scores on an intelligence test and the “Gifted Rating Scale,” an assessment by the child’s teacher that many believe adds a troublesome subjective element to the selection process.

Dona Matthews, director of the Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies and Education believes that young children are best served attending programs close to home. “Proximity (to the program) should be a factor in determining admission to gifted classes,” she says. Ms. Matthews also has problems with creating an artificial composite score from the objective test and the GRS.

Her concerns were echoed by Mark Alter, a professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. Mr. Alter is one of the city’s most respected experts on special education. He sees parallels between gifted programs and special education programs. “Every child has a right to get an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment,” he says. Attending school a distance from home works against this. He believes that much of the lack of success of special education programs results from the disproportionate number of children in these programs not assigned to their neighborhood school.

The agenda of the Department of Education in creating their gifted and talented admission policy goes back to “equity,” the nagging issue of race. But this shouldn’t be of concern. The majority of Riverdale’s public schools are already filled by minorities, the only District 10 schools with any degree of diversity. The racial balance of a district that is 95% minority cannot be improved by any social engineering scheme.

Indeed, when the program fully kicks in after five years, P.S. 24 may find that it has lost its prized diversity, all in the name of “equity.”

The image of local students of all races denied spots in a program in their own community does not sit well with Riverdale’s assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz. He suggests that opening only two classes in a district so large is “absurd,” and that the community should reject the program.

“Gifted children should be able to attend classes in the school closest to their home with the appropriate program. I’m beginning to think that we’d be better off if we tell Mr. Klein that we don’t want his sham program in our community.”

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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