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New York City to phase out gifted and talented public school programs that critics call racist

"The era of judging 4-year-olds based on a single test is over," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan Friday to phase out the gifted and talented programs for elementary school students that many educators say discriminate against Black and Hispanic children enrolled in the nation’s largest public school system.

It will be replaced by a program called “Brilliant NYC” that will expand the pool of students being offered accelerated learning, and not limit it to just the incoming kindergarteners who scored well on an optional exam that put them on a path to attend the city’s elite middle schools and high schools.

“The era of judging 4-year-olds based on a single test is over,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Brilliant NYC will deliver accelerated instruction for tens of thousands of children, as opposed to a select few. Every New York City child deserves to reach their full potential, and this new, equitable model gives them that chance.”

Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, speaks at New Bridges Elementary School in Brooklyn, ahead of schools reopening on Aug. 19, 2020.Jeenah Moon / Pool via Reuters file

De Blasio’s announcement, which came in the waning days of his final term in City Hall, sent shock waves through New York City that are likely to be felt in public school systems across the country grappling with similar kinds of racial disparities.

The new plan comes two years after a diversity task force in New York recommended scrapping most selective programs that use test scores and other criteria to determine class placement, and which helped create a two-tier school system where 75 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs were either white or of Asian descent, while the students who didn’t make that cut were relegated to inferior schools with fewer resources.

Currently, the program admits only 2,500 pupils a year out of 65,000 kindergartners citywide.

Critics, including some fellow Democrats, quickly pounced on de Blasio’s move.

“Gifted and talented programs have been an integral option for generations of schoolkids,” tweeted state Sen. John Liu, a Democrat from Queens who chairs a panel on New York City schools. “@BilldeBlasio promised intensive public engagement about it but now wants total elimination.”

A top official at The National Association for Gifted Children, which advocates for gifted and talented programs, said "equity in gifted education must be addressed" but de Blasio's plan falls short.

"Though we support several aspects of Brilliant NYC, such as increased teacher training and the elimination of a single gifted identification exam, we are not confident that accelerated learning by itself will meet the needs of our gifted learners equally," Lauri Kirsch, president of the NAGC Board of Directors, said. "Moving forward, I’m hopeful that the mayor and New York City Department of Education will reconsider this plan and keep the best interests of our gifted children in mind."

Asian American activists have been among the most vocal opponents of dismantling gifted and talented programs, which they see as a way for the community to advance.

“The elimination of the G&T program is just another example of this administration’s continued assault on high achieving students and accelerated learners," said Yiatin Chu, co-president of PLACE NYC, a New York City advocacy group.

Some public school parents also expressed alarm.

Marcia Benjamin-Charles, 44, a mother of two public school students in Brooklyn, said she fears de Blasio’s move will result in an exodus of bright students to charter schools.

“I’m African American, and a lot of African American children are going to charter schools now,” she said.

Benjamin-Charles said she considered moving her oldest child, who is now 20, to a charter school after the gifted and talented classes he attended until the 4th grade were discontinued at his school. But she ended up keeping him there and he graduated second in his class.

“I was a public school student,” Benjamin-Charles, who works as a transitional care manager, said. “I turned out fine. I want to give my children the same education.”

But Sok Svay of Queens, whose 14-year-old daughter is a public school student, said de Blasio’s new plan will level the playing field. She said that while her daughter is thriving despite not being in a gifted and talented program, basing children's future on how they perform on a test taken at age 4 is unfair to the parents who have neither the time nor resources to prep their kids for this examination.

“It’s really exclusionary because when you think about a lot of immigrant parents who cannot read or do not have the time to go through this whole process, their kids will probably be missing out on better programs on account of just being shut out from understanding the process,” Svay, a Cambodian refugee who was raised in the Bronx, said. “Class segregation, which leads to racial segregations, needs to stop.”

Under de Blasio’s plan, students enrolled in the gifted and talented programs will stay in them. But the programs will no longer exist for incoming kindergarten students next fall.

Instead of the much-criticized entrance exam, the city will sort out which third-graders should be put in accelerated classes by evaluating their school work and getting input from their teachers.

The city will also train all kindergarten teachers to provide accelerated learning in areas ranging from robotics and computer coding to community organizing.

No longer will these students deemed gifted be separated from their other peers. Instead, they will spend several periods a day working on specific subject areas with specially trained teachers before returning to their regular classes.

The move also puts de Blasio’s likely successor, Eric Adams, in a bind. A Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Adams campaigned on a promise to expand the existing gifted and talented program to lower-income neighborhoods and it would be up to him to implement this new program should he be elected.

“Eric will assess the plan and reserves his right to implement policies based on the needs of students and parents, should he become mayor,” Evan Thies, a spokesman for Adams’ campaign, told The New York Times. “Clearly the Department of Education must improve outcomes for children from lower-income areas.”

Adam's Republican rival, Curtis Sliwa, said he benefited from taking accelerated classes at his Brooklyn middle school and that New Yorkers should have "more gifted and talented programs, not less."

"My youngest sons tried to get into the gifted and talented program, but they did not qualify because there weren't enough slots," he said in an email.

New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the country. But the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported in June that the city's public schools are the most segregated in the nation.

“Two-thirds of a century after the Supreme Court said that segregated schools are ‘inherently unequal’ New York is a national epicenter of racial segregation in unequal schools,” Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, wrote.