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How One School Bucks City's Racially Segregated Gifted and Talented System

By Amy Zimmer | September 30, 2015 7:35am
 The Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in Windsor Terrace has an embedded honors program where students opt to do extra work to get an honors distinction rather than be in a separate class from struggling students.
The Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in Windsor Terrace has an embedded honors program where students opt to do extra work to get an honors distinction rather than be in a separate class from struggling students.
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Brooklyn Prospect Charter School

BROOKLYN — Windsor Terrace's Brooklyn Prospect Charter prides itself on having a community that "reflects the diversity of Brooklyn."

The lottery-based middle and high school, which takes students from Red Hook to Park Slope and beyond, attracts kids from an array of cultural and racial backgrounds who enter the school performing at very different levels.

For example, some sixth graders who enter are behind by two, or even three, levels in reading. Others come in earning fours — the highest mark — on both the state English and math exams.

Yet, since the school's core mission is integration, it decided to make a radical departure from the common performance-based tracking system that labels students as gifted based on previous performance, educators at the charter said.

Instead of following the path of many public schools — where sorting starts as early as kindergarten based on the city's gifted and talented test given to 4-year-olds who compete for the scant 100 specialized programs across the city, resulting in a system segregated by race and class — Brooklyn Prospect developed a new model.

It opted for an embedded honors program where students remain in the same class but elect to be in an accelerated program that allows them to earn commendations by successfully completing extra work.

"Students opt in and earn an honors designation by sustaining their effort and engagement by working throughout the year, as opposed to other models that group kids prior to taking the course," said Craig Cetrulo, the high school's humanities chair.

"It's not just double the same work. The idea is to engage them with additional meaningful work."

The school introduced the program last year as a pilot in its ninth grade literature and composition class.

Interested students sign a contract, along with their caregiver, acknowledging their responsibility to do additional coursework, including an extra 100 pages of reading between sessions, an hourlong seminar-style class every other week delving deeper into some of the topics and extra assignments like writing their own creative or analytical piece on a topic.

For Brooklyn Prospect's embedded honors pilot year, more than 20 students signed up — and they weren't "just the students who were already on our radar as potential honors students," Cetrulo noted.

"There's an opportunity for teachers to invite students into the program who might not see themselves as honors students," Cetrulo said. "This is one of the great things about the program. It's available to all."

In the initial class, 18 students earned an Honors designation on their official transcript. This year the program has expanded to 10th grade English and Humanities, as well as in both Living Environment and Physics.

These courses are designed to be inclusive and "meet students where they are," with no distinction openly made between those students who participate in the Embedded Honors program, Cetrulo explained.

Many schools segregate out top-performing students putting them on a path towards success — at the expense of their general-ed classmates, critics say. But many parents have embraced gifted programs as the school system has moved increasingly toward a high-pressure test-based tracking system, education experts said. 

These programs, however, perpetuate a racial imbalance: in the city elementary G&T programs, for instance, roughly 70 percent are white and Asian despite a public school general population that is roughly 70 percent black and Hispanic.

►MAP: See How Racial Segregation Persists at Gifted and Talented Programs

Other educational leaders are looking for new models of how to provide school-wide enrichment, as well, and move away from the city's G&T model.

The BELL Academy, a public middle school in Bayside, uses the Renzulli method of gifted education for all — as opposed to providing enrichment just for "gifted" students — as does a high school recently opened by that school's founders, the Veritas Academy in Flushing, said Halley Potter, a researcher with the Century Foundation, who spent time studying BELL.

Mixing kids of different groups is not just an academic exercise but has real-world implications, Potter said. "Students attending integrated schools can help reduce racial prejudice."

The Lower East Side's Community Education Council for District 1 plans to use a state Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program Grant to study how the Renzulli system could be used to turn the struggling P.S. 15 into a magnet program to boost achievement of low-income students and attract higher-income students to the school, CEC head Lisa Donlan said.

The school currently serves a student body that is made up of 43 percent of students who are homeless or in supportive housing.

Teaching in diverse classrooms, however, isn't easy since it requires differentiating coursework based on students' different learning styles, readiness and interest, experts said.

To tailor their core content to different needs, teachers at Brooklyn Prospect collaborate with their department heads and learning specialists at each grade level and willingly take on the additional hours of preparing for sessions and responding to student work required to offer the Embedded Honors program, Cetrulo said.

But he said the effort is worth it.

Brooklyn Prospect has already seen a marked change in the level of discourse among all students in the English class with the embedded honors compared to the English class previously geared to just the struggling students, he said.

The honors students bring another level of experience to the classroom and are not only able to talk more deeply with their peers — whether or not those students are in the honors program — but also help boost the amount of time the students discuss topics with each other.

"We see all boats rise with that tide," Cetrulo said.