Upset about the DOE’s abrupt change to the middle-school enrollment procedure for District 26’s gifted and talented program, the parents of children in the program packed a public community education council meeting at MS 67 last Thursday night to air their grievances.
For the first time, fifth-graders in the gifted and talented class at PS 203 in Oakland Gardens will no longer automatically continue with the program at MS 74. Traditionally, each class would move on to a specific middle school together as a group.
Jackie Ling, the father of a fifth-grader at PS 203, brought a petition bearing 375 signatures to the CEC, opposing the changes and advocating for a fair enrollment process for the middle-school gifted and talented program.
Parents of gifted and talented students at PS 188 in Hollis Hills and PS 18 in Bellerose protested in solidarity with the PS 203 parents against the threat to their children’s promotions to MS 158 and MS 67, respectively. A gifted and talented class at Glen Oaks’ PS 115 feeds into IS 216, and was founded two years ago, as was the PS 203 class.
While fifth-graders in most gifted and talented programs citywide must reapply for middle school, District 26’s program has been an exception because it has existed since the 1980s. Another exception exists in District 30 in western Queens, where parents successfully fought to keep their children’s automatic seats until 2019. The District 26 parents argued that District 30 ought to have set a precedent.
“It is unfair for District 26 to have seats taken away when District 30 kids won’t have their seats taken away until 2019,” Ling said. “We recognize that all gifted and talented kids should have more opportunities to enter a gifted and talented program, but not at the expense of another kid. That’s why we’re asking for more seats. Our kids have earned their automatic seats over the past five years.”
A mother of a gifted and talented student at PS 18 said that breaking up classes that have been together since kindergarten may mean that some children go off to middle school without their existing friends. She argued that this would be “extremely detrimental and harmful,” since middle school is already a socially challenging time for most people.
“We get more notice about upcoming talent shows,” Ling said, as parents and students in the program were only informed of the changes on Nov. 13, leaving them with only a month to complete the middle-school application process. Many complained about being blindsided and running to middle school open houses every other night.
District 26 Superintendent Anita Saunders said that she first heard about the changes discussed at a DOE meeting on March 21, but the procedural details remained nebulous until last month. She said that previously, there was never an issue because seats for new students always opened up between grades 5 and 6 because people moved away and middle schools allowed larger class sizes than the elementary schools.
Sarah McPhee, a representative of the city’s Office of School Enrollment, which now handles all middle-school placements, explained the DOE’s rationale for the change.
“The intent is that the highest scoring kids are the ones in the gifted and talented programs,” McPhee said. Placements will be determined using a list of students in descending order of test scores on the fourth-grade standardized tests.
However, many parents felt that was unfair, as more than 700 students in the district earned fours on both the math and English language arts exams, while there are only 165 seats in the program.
“Our kids took these tests in April and did not know what was at stake,” Ling said. “The teachers told us not to worry.”
CEC member Susan Shiroma told McPhee that Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott had said the test scores weren’t going to matter. She asked what changed. McPhee replied that tests are used for placements throughout the city.
Many parents balked at the idea of state testing determining “giftedness” in the first place.
One mother of a fifth-grader at PS 203 said that her child is thriving in the program and consistently brings home 95s and 100s on tests, but only earned a three on the ELA exam.
“Our children were tested when they were four years old. Wasn’t that test good enough?” asked Roshan Perrara, the father of two children in the gifted and talented program at PS 203.
Shajid Ali Muhammad, the father of a second-grader at PS 18, noted that he moved from Jamaica to Oakland Gardens so his child could be in District 26’s gifted and talented program. However, his child was placed at PS 18 instead of PS 188. Several years later, the family moved to Queens Village to live near the school. Soon after, his second son placed into the program at PS 18 too. However, if his child does not go onto MS 67 and is placed elsewhere, the commute to other middle schools is very far from their home.
“All parents planned where to live based on schools,” Muhammad said. “This throws off all of our planning.”
Jungah Paterson, the mother of a fifth-grader at PS 203 said that she chose to move based on the assumption her child would go to MS 74. Now that this is no longer guaranteed, she is left in a lurch because her family has a temporary address until their closing on Jan. 20, after the deadline. Therefore, her child is technically zoned for schools far away from the new house because of the temporary address.
“We did not have enough notice, it’s not fair,” she said.