Adams: NYC Needs to Coax Families Back into the Public Schools. But the City's New Gifted-and-Talented Programs May Not Be Enough

NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks (right) and Mayor Eric Adams (left) at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on Jan. 3. (Getty Images)

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The New York City mayor’s office and the United Federation of Teachers rarely see eye to eye. (The ongoing battle over reopening schools while COVID-19 is still present is just the most recent battleground.)

But they unequivocally agree about this: It’s imperative to persuade families who have fled the public school system in recent years to return. Every student lost costs the district $28,000. Even some of the most highly coveted public schools in the city are facing budget shortfalls as a result. 

During the 2017-18 academic year, 1.1 million students were enrolled in the NYC public school system. As of October 2021, that number was down to 938,000. The biggest drops were seen in the early years. Kindergarten through eighth grade lost 73,290 students since 2018-19, which is approximately the size of one entire grade. This year’s kindergarten enrollment is down 14% from before the pandemic, after some 120,000 families left the public school system over the past five years.

Their reasons for doing so varied, but schools unquestionably played a major role. Some parents, unhappy with flip-flopping reopening plans, fled the city and enrolled their children in their new local schools. Some, who stayed but wanted their children in class in person five days a week, defected to private schools. Others, who needed the consistency of five day a week remote learning, transferred to charters. Another group made the move when the application process to the city's gifted-and-talented programs turned into a last minute, chaotic mess.

Now, says teachers union President Michael Mulgrew — for once in agreement with Mayor Eric Adams: The city “needs to mount a major campaign to get those kids back into our classrooms.”

To that end, Schools Chancellor David Banks said: “You have a full-on commitment that this administration is fully committed to listening to parents. … [W]e are expanding gifted and talented like never before, and we're doing this because we have been listening.”

For September, Adams and Banks are not only adding 100 more kindergarten G&T seats, but current second graders will get the chance to apply to a brand-new “Top Performer” G&T program that will begin in third grade for the top 10 percent of students at every public school. The district is also reinstating a process that had let rising first and second graders apply for available seats in those grades (a step impossible last year for children who hadn’t qualified the year before).

The biggest change is that instead of depending on parents to nominate their children for G&T programs, those recommendations will now be handled by preschool teachers and the city Department of Education. The families of public school students deemed eligible for the “Top Performer” program will be notified directly by the district. As indicated above, there are around 70,000 students per grade in NYC schools. The top 10 percent will be approximately 7,000 students. The lottery will determine which 1,000 of them get to participate in this soon-to-be-established high-achiever track.

But while Banks says he’s been listening to parents and shaping policy accordingly, there is one group he appears to have overlooked.

Since the new G&T process was announced, I have been deluged by emails from parents such as this one, who are all asking variations of the same question: What about kids in private schools? Most families opted for private last year since G&T was not an option, so how will those kids apply and get back into the public school system? 

At the moment, the answer to that is unclear. The DOE website states:

  • For current grade 2 students in private or parochial schools
  • The DOE will determine which private/parochial school applicants qualify as eligible top performers based on their grades.
  • Interested families with children entering grades 1, 2 or 3 can apply this spring to enter G&T programs in fall 2022.
  • Eligibility will be determined after families apply – more information on eligibility for children in these grades will be available soon (bolding theirs).

All applicants will be notified whether their child got into a G&T program in July.

There are multiple problems with this. The first is that private school tuition is due long before July. Parents who might have been interested in returning to the public school system may be reluctant to forfeit thousands of dollars in pre-paid tuition. And they are definitely not confident enough in the system to withdraw their child ahead of receiving admission to a G&T program, especially since the odds, as indicated above, are against them.

The other issue is that private school parents, unlike those with kids in public school, will not be automatically notified by the DOE if their child is eligible. They’ll need to first learn about the program, then take the extra step of applying their children for DOE assessment.

And then there’s the issue of what constitutes “qualified.” Many private schools don’t give grades in the early years, and the ones that do may grade on a different standard than public schools. Furthermore, if the DOE reserves the right to “determine which private/parochial school applicants qualify as eligible top-performers based on their grades,” will they ever release the criteria for doing so? Will parents be able to review them? Will there be an appeals process? How long will each review take? Will this be on a school-by-school basis? Will entire schools be excluded from the process, or will qualification be determined student by student? What happens in private schools where every single student would be eligible? Will it still somehow be whittled down to the top 10 percent? For first and second grade entry, how will private school families even know what materials to submit if there are no criteria yet?

Expanding G&T programming is definitely a step in the right direction for persuading reluctant families to give the public school system that failed them once a second chance. But if NYC wants to truly increase attendance numbers, rather than simply quench the ongoing hemorrhaging by moving kids already in public schools from program to program, they need to make it easier for those who fled to opt back in.

Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling romance and mystery writer, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High School, a blogger at New York School Talk and mother of three. She believes you can't have true school choice until all parents know all their school choices — and how to get them. Visit her website, www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.

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