MANHATTAN — Since her friends' 4-year-olds were taking the city's gifted and talented exam, Inwood mom Bridget Mills signed her son up, too. With no test prep, he scored in the 97th percentile, much to her surprise.
The Gifted and Talented, or G&T, program wasn't on her radar, Mills said, so after receiving the test results in April 2015, she was surprised to learn that Upper Manhattan's District 6 only had one school offering a gifted class — and it didn't get stellar reviews, she said.
The city's G&T programs can differ dramatically in different districts — and even within the same school, experts said. How they're structured depends on the vision of the teacher and the dynamic of the students in the classroom. Often, but not always, the classes are accelerated. Some are homework- and worksheet-intensive; others champion more project-based and experiential learning.
"I know we don't have as many kids taking the test in [in District 6], but at least one viable option should be available in all districts," said Mills, an actor and child guardian for young actors in Broadway shows. Mills' son's pre-school teachers didn't think her district's G&T program would be a good fit for him. She applied to gifted programs outside her district, but is "not holding her breath" about getting in.
Mills' son technically scored high enough to qualify him for one of the five elite all-gifted schools that take kids from across the city. But because those schools have only have 325 seats — and more than 1,500 kids who qualify for them — only kids who score 99 tend to get in.
Families will learn their children's scores in April and must submit applications by Apr. 24, 2017. They will learn of their G&T offers by early June and then have until June 16, 2017, to pre-register.
Here's what you need to know if you're thinking about the city's G&T programs.
1. There's no uniform G&T curriculum.
The Department of Education does not mandate any curriculum for G&T programs, but do require that they address Common Core standards.
"G&T programs aim to deliver accelerated, rigorous, and specialized instruction aligned to Common Core Learning Standards," the DOE says on its website.
Some gifted programs will use the same curriculum as their school's general education classes albeit at a faster pace; some use an entirely different curriculum and may even use one that's for an entire grade level higher, explained Michael McCurdy, of the test prep site TestingMom.com, which hosts free events on how to prepare your child for the city's gifted and talented tests.
G&T classes can often move at a fast pace since often student engagement is high and "these kids love to learn," he said. Because the Core curriculum can be covered quicker, it can lead to more time for enrichment, he added.
"A G&T school may sound perfect by reputation, but when you arrive, your instinct may tell you it’s not a good fit for your child," McCurdy said. "The most important question to ask is, 'Can I imagine my child learning and being happy in this environment?' If the answer is 'yes,' then it's good to consider that school as one of the choices."
2. G&T options vary widely by district.
Some districts have more G&T options than others.
Under a pilot program started in September 2016, DOE created new third grade G&T classes in the South Bronx's District 7, Crotona Park's District 12, Bedford-Stuyvesant's District 16 and Ocean Hill/Brownsville's District 23.
Families with students in the second grade who live in these four districts were able to apply to these new programs based on a variety of measures believed to be indicators for success in gifted programs, including academic performance, attendance and such behaviors as being highly curious, DOE officials said.
District 20, spanning southwest Brooklyn areas like Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Borough Park, has the most schools offering programs, with nine. Manhattan's District 2, which includes TriBeCa, Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side — and generally has the highest number of eligible students — has eight schools.
In District 2, some families view G&T as "insurance policy" against their top-rated zoned schools that might have waitlists, said Joyce Szuflita, a consultant for Brooklyn families through NYC School Help.
3. If there's a G&T program at your zoned school, your child does not have priority there.
Parents don't always realize that if their zoned school has a G&T program and their child is eligible for it, they don't have priority for that seat, Szuflita said.
Admission is based on a lottery, and any eligible students in the district have equal chance at scoring a G&T slot regardless of where they live.
"The principals have absolutely no say over G&T placement," Szuflita said.
4. If your school only has one G&T class, hope that your kid likes the other students.
In a school with only one G&T class per grade, those kids will be together for the entirety of their elementary school years.
"You better like those kids," Szuflita said, "because they become like siblings. They all know how to push each other's buttons, and if you've got a mean girl in there, you're stuck."
5. Logistics of sending your child to a G&T program can be tricky.
Transportation is often a sticking point for families who want to send their kids to gifted programs, since the schools might not be close to home.
"Getting to and from school can be a logistical nightmare for some — especially if they have more than one child and the kids attend different schools," McCurdy said.
6. Citywide gifted programs are considered the holy grail.
Many parents covet the citywide programs because they extend at least through eighth grade, which means no stressful middle school applications, McCurdy noted.
Plus, in these all-gifted schools, there's no "us versus them" divide that sometimes emerges at schools or disparities in the demographic make-up of G&T classes and in general education, many said.
Test scores in these all-gifted schools tend to be higher than even the most well-regarded neighborhood schools, Karen Quinn, of TestingMom.com, said.
For instance, at the Upper West Side's citywide G&T school Anderson, 91.3 percent of fourth graders taking the state math exam in 2013 scored a 4, the top mark, and 7.5 percent got a 3.
On the other hand, the Upper West Side's most popular neighborhood school, P.S. 9, saw 33.7 percent score a 4 on the math and 31.3 percent score a 3.
In light of these statistics, Quinn urges families to try these programs if they can score a coveted seat.
"We’ve met a number of parents whose kids qualified for and got into some of the most in-demand gifted programs, but they didn’t send them because of logistics," Quinn said.
After deciding they made a mistake, they had their child tested again.
"But this time, he or she wouldn’t make a qualifying score, or if they did, there wouldn’t be open spaces in the gifted program they really wanted," Quinn said.
7. Being in a G&T program doesn't guarantee you a good middle school.
The city's G&T district-wide programs end at middle school.
"There is no gold star by your name for middle school when you come from G&T," Szuflita said, "because every good middle school principal knows that no test given when you are 4 is any indication of who you are at 11."