Perceptions and Reality

Public School 163, an elementary school on the Upper West Side of NYC, has a general student body that is 63 percent Black and Hispanic, 27 percent white and 6 percent Asian. But the demographics are quite different in the school’s Gifted and Talented (“G&T”) program: 47 percent of the children enrolled in the nine G&T classes are white; 15 percent are Asian and 32 percent are Black and Hispanic. In the early grades the disparity is most noticeable: Of the 24 students in a kindergarten gifted class, one is Black and three are Hispanic. A first-grade gifted class with 21 students has one Black and two Hispanic students, and there are two Blacks and two Hispanics among the 26 students in a second-grade gifted class. Only 18 percent (80 out of 447) of the children in the general education (not G&T) classes are white.

An article in Sunday’s NY Times, found here, discusses the issues surrounding the demographics of the gifted and talented program and the general student body. Is the selection process fair? Does it rely upon standardized tests which are considered to disadvantage children from poorer communities, in part because they cannot afford extensive test preparation? Does the school advertise the programs in the best ways possible to attract all deserving candidates? The article suggests that much work must be done to alter these demographics.

But two comments, one from a parent and one from a teacher in this school, warrant special attention from GCP readers. Ellis Cose, an African American parent of a child who attends a gifted and talented program at P.S. 163, noted: “I don’t think the fact that G&T programs are clearly and disproportionately white, and are so lacking, given the size of the population, in black and Latino students is the result of anyone’s bad intentions.” Mr. Cose is the author of “The End of Anger” (2011), which explores the issues of race and generational change. “I think it is really the result of people committed to a system that can never work if the objective is diversity,” he said. “The only way it even conceivably can work is to give young poor kids the same sort of boost up that young affluent kids get, which is to make sure these kids get an excellent preschool education, make sure these kids get tutoring, make sure these parents know at what time in the circuit they are supposed to prepare their kids for what. And that is taking on a much larger task than tinkering with a test.”

In other words, parents have to not only know about the program, the application process and the testing, but start helping their children prepare for it years in advance. As we often say at GCP: One of the keys to getting a good education for our children is having access to the information we need to help them be as prepared as possible. Experts resoundingly agree that the years of 0-3 are the most important formative years for a child’s brain development, and parents need to begin at birth thinking about how to make sure we are doing all we can during those years to engage and stimulate our children. If we start our focus that early, we are going to be better prepared to deal with what we need to do by the time we need to enroll our children in pre-school and kindergarten.

Getting access to this information in a timely fashion isn’t easy, especially since we don’t know what we don’t know. But we have got to try harder to find out. This is why GCP was established: to help parents have more and greater access to information about the education and development of their children, especially their sons. To encourage parents to think about these issues proactively, rather than wait until there is a problem to solve. GCP is a start. But more is needed.

This becomes even more apparent when you read one teacher’s comment from this article:

…[O]ne afternoon at the school, Ms. Lindner, the fifth-grade teacher, said she was “always surprised” when she saw more than two or three white children in her general education classes. As a parent herself, and a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she said, “there’s no way I’d put my kid in a general-education class here, no way, because it’s right next to the project and all the kids in general education come from the projects.” She said her experience was that many of the children in her general education classes were at grade level or below and did not get the same support from their parents that the children in the gifted classes got. “They’re tougher kids,” she said of the general education students in the school. “They’re very street-savvy. They don’t have the background; their parents are hard on them but don’t know what to do with them.”

OK, this is a teacher in this school. So when she stands in front of her general education classes on the first day of class, looks out over those young, mostly brown faces, and thinks about how to teach these boys and girls, by her own admission she is also thinking that every kid in the class is below average, doesn’t have the skills to succeed (never mind excel), has parents who are mean and clueless, and that there is no way she would have her own kids in this class, because the education is not good enough for them. What chance does a young boy or girl have to achieve in that classroom?

We can cringe all day when we read comments like this, and hope (and demand, even) that this teacher’s comments, coupled with her arrogance and stupidity in boldly making them to a NY Times reporter get her bounced out of that job tomorrow, but we also have to be realistic and analytical here. For every teacher that goes on the record with these comments there have got to be others who are thinking but not saying these things. But no hand wringing allowed; it is time to be savvy and strategic. In biased comments like these there may be kernels of truth, and one kernel here may be that all parents need to be more actively involved in their children’s education. In fact, these kinds of comments bolster the argument for getting and staying involved with your child’s teachers and school. By connecting with the teacher and the school regularly you are learning more about your child’s learning environment, and you have greater access to information (from teachers and other parents) which could help your son or daughter. You are demonstrating your interest in and support for your child’s schooling. You are giving teachers like this less ammunition to use against your child, and more importantly, giving teachers who really care (of which there are so many) the opportunity to work with you to help your child be the best he can be. And, if and when you run into teachers like Ms. Lindner, you will know with whom to work to make sure she no longer has that job.

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