MANHATTAN — There's a lot of focus lately on changing the city's high school admissions process to improve diversity at elite schools. But many experts believe that before kindergarten, the system already starts separating out the top performers and families with the time or money to get extra help for their kids to succeed.
Even the $200-an-hour tutors of 4-year-olds vying for coveted gifted-and-talented seats are convinced that the system is unfair, and some are working to offer some of their knowledge for free.
But questions remain on what type of resources can best level the playing field.
The city is hoping to improve diversity in G&T programs by expanding the pool of test takers. It increased outreach so more families know to register for this January’s test by the Nov. 13 deadline.
Last year, for the first time the DOE mailed postcards about G&T testing to all pre-K families, hosted elementary admissions events in all 32 districts and encouraged homeless families to submit requests for testing at their shelters.
Yet, improving access has not transformed the demographics of those who pass the test. While the number of kindergarten test takers increased 14.5 percent to 16,582, the number of those passing the test actually went down slightly, from 4,528 to 4,467, according to DOE data.
The largest number of kids who pass the G&T exam is invariably in Manhattan’s affluent District 2, which spans from TriBeCa, Greenwich Village and Chelsea to Gramercy and the Upper East Side. Of its more than 1,750 preschoolers testing for G&T seats, 46 percent passed, according to 2017 DOE data.
That Manhattan district is typically followed the Upper West Side’s District 3, where 42 percent of its 933 4-year-olds passed.
Meanwhile fewer than 20 students passed the G&T tests in the low-income areas South Bronx's District 7, Crotona Park's District 12, Bedford-Stuyvesant's District 16 and Ocean Hill/Brownsville's District 23. The city last year implemented gifted classes in these districts starting in third grade based on teacher recommendations rather than test scores.
Fewer than 20 kids passed the test in East New York’s District 19 and Bushwick's District 32 as well. (The DOE did not disclose the actual numbers of those who passed since there were too few.)
Low-cost workbooks and access to free prep questions abound.
Private tutor Jennifer Liepin, who got into G&T test prep seven years ago as a tutor and then director at Bright Kids, which has three Manhattan-based centers, believes that access to test prep can help close the gap.
She launched a Kickstarter campaign, selling the book for $1. As of Monday morning, she raised $500 of her $1,000 goal to help her create a website offering the book for free.
“The going rate is $200 an hour, and other tutors out there are charging more than that,” said Liepin. “It’s usually 10 sessions required, so a lot of these families are paying $2,000 to tutor their 4-year-olds. And some get admissions consultants on top of that.”
Already, many test prep companies, like online test prep service TestingMom.com, and Bright Kids, offer free questions. Inexpensive workbooks are available on Amazon, and the DOE's G&T handbook also has sample questions made by the test's maker.
Liepin's workbook features 80 questions for the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), spatial reasoning riddles that make up half of test.
The other section is made up of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), which quizzes a student's logic skills, with an adult proctor reading a question aloud to a child once and then asking for an answer. Liepin hopes to make a free workbook for the OLSAT in the future.
She tried to get the city’s Department of Education to distribute her e-book through its website, Liepin said. But the agency does not post test-prep from outside commercial entities on its website, school officials noted.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Liepin said, “but I certainly hope it’s something that can change the numbers a bit.”
But Bige Doruk, CEO and president of Bright Kids, which is Liepin’s former employer, said a free or low-cost workbook would not change much.
"In terms of leveling the playing field, it's not going to happen with a workbook," said Doruk.
Some test prep companies offer scholarships.
Doruk’s company is addressing the G&T disparities through a foundation it started two years ago to provide low-income children with free prep for the gifted exam. It's presently working with about 60 students.
"We spend hours and hours tutoring them on the basics. We have to tutor them for over a year," Doruk said. "A lot of these kids have so many distractions in their life.”
Her center sees 4-year-olds who can’t even speak two sentences, Doruk noted.
TestingMom.com sponsors an organization called HOPEorgNYC to provide its resources for free to children in the South Bronx districts 7 and 9.
The company also give "scholarships" to parents who need financial assistance, and the site, in general, keeps its prices low so cost is not a barrier for parents, offering families thousands of practice questions for as little as $25 per month, said TestingMom co-founder Michael McCurdy.
Early childhood education access is helping, but parent involvement is key.
The DOE's Pre-K for All program, providing free pre-K for all 4-year-olds, seems to be helping, Doruk believes.
"We see kids coming in with better and better foundations," she said.
But parent involvement is the most critical factor, McCurdy said, noting that his site hinges on parents helping their kids.
“Study after study indicates that if a parent is involved in their child's education that child has a much better chance of academic success. This is regardless of socio-economic status," he said. “We want every parent to become their child's favorite teacher, and it all starts at home when the child is very young.”