Queens Parents Protest Gifted Student Program Changes

Parents in Bayside, Queens at a recent meeting about gifted student programs. (Photo via World Journal)

Parents in Bayside, Queens at a recent meeting about gifted student programs. (Photo via World Journal)

About 30 parents of fifth graders in school district 26 in Queens gathered at a district meeting December 19 to protest against a sudden policy change by the Department of Education that stops automatically promoting students in the gifted and talented programs in primary schools to such programs in junior high schools.

The DOE announced last month the termination of the privileges on promotion previously enjoyed by students in certain primary schools in the district, and required all students to be treated equally and the admission decisions of the gifted programs in junior highs to be based on the students’ test scores in the fourth grade region exams.

Some parents complained the process of making the new policy was not transparent. Many people who moved to the district solely to give their children a better education said they “feel like having been cheated.”

Officials from the DOE said the gifted programs were designed to cover kindergarten to fifth grade. The department has never promised that the original admission can be extended to eighth grade. Also, students who lag behind after being admitted have to be transferred to regular classes. Under the new policy students with higher test scores get to select schools before their peers.

The officials promised they’d pass the thoughts of parents to the higher-ups. The parents said they understand the new policy is based on the interests of majority students. But they suggested that DOE add more seats in the gifted programs, and said “it shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of the current ‘gifted’ students for fairness.”

Schools affected by the new policy include P.S. 18, P.S. 115, P.S. 188 and P.S. 203, with a total of 120 fifth graders. Under the old policy these students can move directly into gifted programs in JHS 216, M.S. 172, M.S. 158, JHS 67, and J.H.S. 74, depending on their home addresses. The parents said that in fourth grade region exams in this district,  710 students received level 4 (the highest level) in math, and 434 students received level 4 in English.

Almost all these students are qualified for the gifted programs. But there are only 33 seats in total in the programs offered by the junior high schools.

A parent whose last name is Chen said her child is in the gifted program in P.S. 203. Before the region exams, teachers in the school told students this is the first time exams are based on the new standard, and the results won’t affect their applications to middle school.

Not until before Halloween, when her child brought back the middle school application form and instructions, did she learn about the change. But the principals of the primary school and the middle schools could not provide a clear explanation.

Chen said she spent a lot of time from the end of November to early December attending school fairs and open schools to learn the details of different schools. “If we were told earlier (about the change), we would have had more time to prepare,” she said.

Anita Saunders, superintendent of School District 26, at the Dec. 19 meeting with parents. (Photo via World Journal)

Anita Saunders, superintendent of school district 26, at the Dec. 19 meeting with parents. (Photo via World Journal)

Some parents said district 30 in Long Island City has encountered similar policy changes in the past. But the DOE announced the change a half year in advance. Still, the change was canceled because of strong protest from parents.

Anita Saunders, Superintendent of district 26 and Sara McPhee, Director of Middle School Admissions of the DOE, said the DOE started to discuss the change in March. The challenge to adding seats is there is no additional budget to hire additional teachers certified to teach gifted students.

Unlike the citywide universal policies of the gifted programs in primary schools, the school district has the authority to make decisions on the gifted programs in middle schools in its district. But the district cannot make decisions on adding seats.

Some education experts pointed out New York State adopted Common Core standards for the first time in the last school year. And many academically competitive students got scores below their regular levels. The results should not be used as reference in promotion.

Chinese parents also complained before that they didn’t know enough about the Common Core to participate in their children’s education. Parents said the region exams are not designed to test student’s gifts and talents, yet now they are going to be used as entrance exams for the gifted and talented programs, and that is unfair.

They are also worried the change would put too much pressure on their children and make them feel they had had the entrance exam for specialized high schools in advance.

Some parents understood. They said the new policy provides opportunities to students who are smart and hardworking now rather than those who were when they were younger. It shows students that even if they are not admitted to the gifted program in kindergarten, they can catch up later.

A real estate agent specializing in Queens and Long Island whose last name is also Chen said both of her children graduated from P.S. 203 and got into Hunter College High School. She suggested Chinese parents look at the long term, in which an open competition can only increase the overall education quality of the district.

She also said Bayside’s real estate market won’t be affected much by the change because it is still in good school district, close to Flushing, and Chinese like to live close to their own community. Also, she pointed out, 90 percent of parents are not affected by the policy change.

Although the deadline for application on the December 13 has passed, parents against the new policy still hope they can reverse it. They have started collecting signatures for a related petition on www.change.org. They plan to send the petition to the Mayor and the Chancellor, as well as elected officials in Queens.

In the petition, they emphasize that students currently in the gifted programs have spent a lot of their time after school studying and tried their best to fulfill the higher academic requirements, including extra homework. And parents also paid extra on purchasing houses and on real estate tax in order to live in the district.

The parents understand the good intention of the policy change. But the current students have contributed a lot to the hefty academic performance of the district. They deserve some benefits.

More than 300 people have signed the petition. Parents interested can search “district 26” on the change.org website. The discussion will continue in the district meeting next month.

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