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20th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 20, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The frustrations of parents on Manhattan’s West Side with new rules governing admission to gifted and talented programs are beginning to draw the attention of politicians and other community leaders throughout the city.The attention goes beyond just the mechanics of the programs to the philosophy that governs them: Increasingly, it is seen as antagonistic.

Because of the new rules emanating from the Tweed Courthouse, the choices faced by West Side parents such as Jodi and Russell Divak are grim.
Three years ago, the Divaks’ young daughter was tested and admitted to the Gifted and Talented program at P.S. 9 on the Upper West Side. The Divaks’ son just passed the examination for admission into the program,but due to the new rules, ostensibly designed to promote “fairness and equity,”the boy will not be able to attend the program in the same school as his older sister. Both the traditional home zone preference and accommodations for siblings to attend the same schools have been eliminated for gifted and talented students. Because of the new rules, the Divaks will have to find a way to get their son to kindergarten and their daughter to her thirdgrade class in schools 13 blocks apart.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is mystified about why the Department of Education is seemingly undermining these popular programs that are attracting and keeping middle-class families in the public schools. “This administration seems to be hostile to rather than embracing the middle class,” she said. “We should be increasing these programs, not erecting barriers to middle-class parents who are eager to send their children to our public schools. Urban school systems not only have to turn around their worst schools, but also do things to improve the best.”

Council Member Lewis Fidler’s concerns go beyond just the new rules. “I have long suspected that the Department of Education does not truly believe in gifted and talented programs,”the Democrat of Brooklyn said.“My suspicions were confirmed when they tried to pass off the Renzulli approach as true gifted and talented programming. It is not.”

Joseph Renzulli is the University of Connecticut professor that the DoE has brought in as the lead consultant to design gifted and talented programs throughout the city. Mr. Renzulli advocates identifying gifted children using far broader criteria than the intelligence tests traditionally used. This has made him a favorite of “progressive” educators such as Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina, and a lightning rod for criticism by traditionalists such as Mr. Fidler.

A similar position was expressed by Rep. Anthony Weiner, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is considered the Democratic front-runner to succeed Mayor Bloomberg. Mr. Weiner accuses the mayor and schools chancellor of having a “tin ear” when it comes to gifted programs and the flight of the middle class. “There is too much concern with what is considered politically correct and the desire to bring only the lowest-performing students to some middle level. We need to telegraph the message to what I call the aspirational parents — and they are of all races and economic levels — that our schools are places designed to raise the performance of all kids.”

To Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who represents Riverdale and Woodlawn in the Bronx, the flap over the Gifted and Talented programs goes to the heart of his frustration with mayoral control of the schools. “There is no longer room for any input from the parents and community as to what they need and want,” he said. “The new program being implemented on the West Side demonstrates that the Tweed Courthouse commissars seem to be committed to a perverted form of political correctness designed to drive the middle class out of the public schools. Children should not be made into pawns as it appears they are on the West Side.”

The new rules,which are to be applied citywide, come as a result of allegations that the gifted programs on the West Side favored white middle-class students. As these alleged abuses became the rallying cry for those who saw the gifted and talented programs as devices for “segregating” the schools, Chancellor Joel Klein promised action. But actions to achieve “equity” were deferred until the mayoral election had passed.
There now is some suggestion that the Department of Education may allow some West Side parents of gifted children to keep siblings together, but only if they agree that all of the children transfer to P.S. 191, a program for which there is apparently little demand.

More than any other controversy, the flap over gifted programs seems to energize parental opposition to the mayor’s stewardship of the schools. This does not surprise educational historian Diane Ravitch. According to Ms. Ravitch, “What we now call ‘gifted’ describes the kind of curriculum that the schools used to offer to all students. The Junior Great Books program, for example, usually offered only to gifted classes, looks very much like the regular curriculum of the 1930s and 1940s. Parents are just frightened to see their children consigned to the dumbed-down miscellany that has become the norm.”

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

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