NEW YORK CITY — Aicha Zamcaligre read the letter from her son’s South Bronx school about the gifted and talented exam, but since she hadn’t heard of the G&T program, she tossed it aside.
After the deadline to take the test passed, she met another parent at a Harlem after-school learning center where she takes her first-grader, Sheick, for math help, who explained the process.
“I didn’t know the benefit of him taking it or not taking the test,” Zamcaligre, 26, said. “I didn’t know if he got in what was going to happen. Would he stay in the same school? I didn’t know if I applied and he didn’t get in would they say something is wrong with him?”
In New York City’s more affluent and middle-class neighborhoods, landing a G&T seat is a hot topic of conversation. But in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, the program is barely on parents’ radar, despite the Department of Education's changes to this year’s G&T exam that aim to make it more difficult to prepare for, helping boost the chances of children from poorer families to score the coveted seats.
Some blame the imbalance on lack of outreach by the schools and the Department of Education.
Fewer children took the G&T exam this year — a dip of nearly 3,300 kids — particularly in outer-borough school districts with poorer students. While Manhattan saw its number of test-takers decline by just 1 percent, the rest of the boroughs saw a 10 percent drop, according to Department of Education data.
In the South Bronx's District 7 and District 9, Brownsville’s District 23 and Bushwick’s District 32 — which are generally considered to have the highest concentrations of low-income students — only 386 prospective kindergartners took the G&T exam this year, down from 479 last year and from more than 650 in 2009, Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield said.
Meanwhile in Manhattan’s District 2, which stretches from tony TriBeCa to the ritzy Upper East Side and typically has the highest number of qualifying students, the number of test takers for kindergarten slots remained virtually unchanged: 1,785 this year compared to 1,784 last year, according to DOE data.
Now that Zamcaligre understands what the test is, she wants Sheick to take it next year. (Children can take the test up to the year they enter third grade.)
“I think he’s smart, but I can’t say he’s gifted and talented for sure,” Zamcaligre said. “Next year he’ll take the test. I want to find out."
Even if her son did qualify for a G&T seat in his school district, his options would be limited. There was only one G&T program in the South Bronx’s District 9 last year.
The DOE often implements programs where there’s demand, but for parents who don’t know about G&T programs, it may be hard to build demand, some parents said.
In District 7, there are no G&T programs, and only 70 4-year-olds sat for the test this year.
“Our reason for not taking the test is that they don’t give enough information to parents," said Neyda Franco, president of the Community Education Council of the South Bronx’s District 7. "We don’t all have computers and access to certain things."
She also believed failing schools don't share information about the test because they want to keep their high-achieving students.
Despite claims that this year's gifted test would be harder to study for, Bloomfield didn’t think that was a deterrent for middle- and upper-class families, especially since “almost any amount of money” for tutoring is worth the investment to get a child into a free gifted and talented program, rather than sending a kid to private school, he said.
“There is always an arms race between the test makers and tutors,” Bloomfield said. “The test may have been less prone to tutoring advantage, but that doesn't mean it was tutor-proof. The reaction among many relatively affluent parents to the supposedly harder test was probably to intensify tutoring rather than to engage in unilateral disarmament.”
Thousands more kids qualified for gifted and talented spots this year compared to last year, even as the test supposedly got harder.
The Parents’ Alliance for Citywide Education, a coalition of families attending the citywide G&T programs, is calling on the DOE to re-implement a dedicated G&T office, which the group believes could help with reaching out and improving diversity in gifted programs.
Kathleen Slocum, a PACE participant and Washington Heights parent of a 6-year-old who attends East Harlem’s TAG Young Scholars — one of the five elite citywide G&T schools — said several parents at her school, which prides itself on its diversity, had difficulty finding information about G&T programs.
“There’s no one doing outreach, and then you miss out and you lose a segment of the population,” Slocum said. “Kids who can’t take advantage of this education are missing out.”
Besides calling for a G&T office, the Parents’ Alliance for Citywide Education is circulating a petition to expand existing citywide G&T programs. They want more than the roughly 285 current kindergarten seats and add new elite citywide G&T schools in The Bronx and Staten Island, which have none, to ease travel times for students. Manhattan has three such schools, and Queens and Brooklyn have one apiece.
“Expanding the Citywide G&T program to provide better geographic coverage can also address the lack of racial diversity in the existing programs by removing logistical barriers for qualifying children from minority neighborhoods,” the petition stated.
A DOE spokeswoman did not respond to questions about reinstating a G&T office, but said that “space constraints” limited the number of G&T seats, adding, “The DOE will evaluate and see if there is the potential for additional sections at existing programs.”