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Prestigious Queens G&T Program to Extend to Eighth Grade, Chancellor Says

ASTORIA — The Department of Education is looking to expand Queens' only citywide Gifted & Talented program through the eighth grade, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told parents at a town hall meeting.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Enrichment and Math) Academy at Astoria's P.S. 85 is the only citywide G&T program in the borough, and one of only five across the city. The program was founded in 2009, as was Brooklyn's School of Inquiry. The three Manhattan programs were founded before that.

But STEM at P.S. 85 currently only goes to fifth grade, making it the only citywide gifted program without a middle school.

STEM parents have been pushing to change that, saying their children should be guaranteed a seat like those enrolled in other citywide programs, instead of having to go through the city's taxing middle school application process.

At a District 30 meeting Monday night, Walcott assured parents that expanding STEM in Queens' District 30 is a priority for the DOE and that the agency will present a plan for doing so later this year.

"Our office of portfolio development is looking into the different options around space availability," Walcott told the crowd. "We're looking to expand it to a K through 8, and we’ll put forward a proposal by June of 2013." 

Citywide G&T's are more selective than district gifted programs: Students must score above the 97th percentile on the admissions test to be eligible, while district programs require scores at or above the 90th percentile.

But P.S. 85 STEM parents say their program has been shortchanged compared to the other citywide gifted programs in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Lydia Tonic, whose son Liam is in kindergarten at STEM, said she and other parents want the program expanded into a stand-alone K-8 school with its own administration. The STEM Academy is part of P.S. 85, with one gifted class in each grade, and is the only citywide G&T that is integrated with a general education school. Those in Manhattan and Brooklyn are stand-alone schools.

"We want equality with the other four citywide gifted and talented programs," Tonic wrote in an e-mail.

Steven Lin, who also has a son in kindergarten in the program, said many parents are frustrated by how long it's taking for the DOE to address their concerns.

"I don't think they really planned it out that well," he said. "They just created a program, and now they're waiting until the 11th hour."

Walcott did not elaborate on what the June proposal could entail, nor did he specify where the STEM sixth, seventh and eighth graders would be housed. P.S. 85 itself, at 23-70 31st St. in Astoria, is already maxed out, according to District 30 Community Education Council co-president Isaac Carmignani.

"They don’t have the room," he said. "[They're] pretty much filled to capacity."

The CEC would ideally like to see the extended program established at I.S. 126 in Long Island City, where the DOE has proposed starting a new district G&T program this fall. Carmignani said I.S. 126 is currently under capacity and has the space for both programs.

"It just makes sense," he added.