For weeks, the New York Times has been reporting on the controversy swirling around the process of assigning New York City students to public-school gifted and talented (G&T) kindergarten programs, especially on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where parents have been outraged by changes to the admissions system that seem at best to ignore some basic practicalities of parenting (like the benefits of having siblings in the same school) and at worst to stack the deck against certain kids (white or minority, depending on your perspective - and, of course, on whether you've been able to get your kid into a G&T under the system or not).

We'll go right to the full disclosure before relating Friday's stunning news - We are Upper West Side parents, and a year ago, when Small Fellow was applying to gifted public kindergarten programs, the process worked against him - at the time, the system  favored siblings of students already in the programs, and gave preference to new students applying to gifted programs in their assigned neighborhood (or "catchment") school. Fellow is an oldest child, and our catchment site, while a great school, has no gifted program - in fact, its parents association and administration actively oppose such programs.* So - Fellow ended up being accepted a year ago to a gifted program 25 blocks away, an offer which we turned down because it was logistically impractical and the program was not as well established as some other neighborhood G&Ts.

This year, however, the district's gifted program no longer gives preference to siblings, or to students applying to their catchment schools. This has outraged many parents trying to get younger siblings into their older brothers' or sisters' schools. On the other hand, the new system favors kids like Fellow: It simply ranks applicants based on a combination of their Stanford-Binet (S-B) scores (an objective test administered by outside psychologists) and the city's own Gifted Rating Scales, or GRS  (a subjective test filled out by teachers - more on this below). Students are then, theoretically, assigned to G&T programs based on that rank. We reapplied to the G&T program this year, and Fellow's
high S-B score from a year ago helped get him assigned to the district's second-most-popular program as a first-grader for the fall. And we have accepted that offer.

But as readers of Joyce Purnick's late** Times column are well aware, many more Upper West Side parents have been attacking the altered system with a fury. But while Purnick covered the story as an embed with the wealthy and leisurely nursery-school moms who gather each morning at the Columbus Bakery (see her columns here and here***), one of her rivals on the education beat seems to have actually done some reporting: If we're to believe Andrew Wolf's Friday column in the New York Sun, t
he Dept. of Education's District 3 (Upper West Side) staff had ordered some - and some seems to be the key here - nursery schools this season to artificially deflate their students' GRS scores (which are subjective evaluations, you'll remember), or take the chance that all of their students might fail to land preferred gifted placements.

Shockingly, Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, newly-installed director of the JCC nursery school on the UWS, went public with Wolf. (More disclosure: We're JCC parents.) Here's his report:

Parents on Manhattan's West Side. . . claim to have evidence that the system has been "rigged" to create "equity" for others at the expense of opportunities for their children. They say it is likely that they will turn to the courts for relief.

Wolf restates the complaints we've been hearing all year: Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein don't support gifted programs, they've added no new G&T seats on the UWS, etc.

As for the GRS, Ruskay-Kidd:

charged that her teachers were warned by a Department of Education official not to give children ratings that were "too high," lest this be perceived as unduly helpful to "entitled" students. The teachers, Ms. Ruskay-Kidd said, were cautioned that if the school scored their students too generously, there would be negative consequences.

Ruskay-Kidd claims the "troubling" orders came from Nicole Kram Rosen, who coordinates the district's G&T programs, and that she followed them. But Wolf later discovered that "teachers at some other schools were given no such admonitions."

Although the Dept. of Ed denied it to Wolf, many parents suspect the city issued its orders to Ruskay-Kidd and others to appease "a radical organizing group, the Center for Immigrant Families, which has been critical of previous admission policies as discriminatory and racist." The department says it added the GRS this year because the federal civil-rights officials demand that cities use multiple criteria to determine gifted placements, not just the S-B IQ test.

We have spoken to Nicole Kram Rosen many times over the past two years as we have gone through the process of G&T applications, and we have never felt that she was anything but above board. She did recently tell us that the entire G&T evaluation system will be revamped (again) next year, as the city will introduce its own home-made admissions test for gifted programs.

But if Wolf's charges are true and the city is bullying top nursery programs to artificially unleaven their kids' test scores, it's a truly shocking charge that throws into question not only the fairness of the city program, but of the nursery programs. Many nursery schools insist that they do not promote one child above another during the "exmissions" process, but if they're knuckling under to the Dept. of Ed and grading on a curve, then how are they deciding which kids to put forward or not? These are the problems inherent in a subjective test, of course. We know, for example, that to evaluate "creativity" on the GRS, teachers are asked to judge kids based on whether art projects are their first choice as an activity - but that's no real measure of artistic aptitude. Etc., etc.

And much as parents outside Manhattan chide all of us for being too neurotic about these things, we think the parents Wolf spoke to are probably correct to consider pursuing this matter in court. He reports that they plan to:

subpoena teachers at preschools throughout the district to testify about the instructions they received. They also will demand results of both the GRS and the objective testing, looking to identify a potential wide variance and correlate that by race, geography, and economic background to prove discrimination against their children.

Unless we've missed it, the Times has not yet picked up on this story. We'll let you know more as we learn more.

* However, the school has come under fire itself for the way it admits students from outside its catchment each year, which is a story for another time.

** Just this morning, Purnick informed New Yorkers that we won't have her to kick around any more.

*** In Purnick's defense, she's also written columns from the other side of the controversy, in which she finds chancellor Joel Klein to be unassailable because, well, he really seems to care. We'll sure miss her . . .

April 11, 2006 | Permalink | Subscribe to RSS


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