Diversity in gifted education is often pitched as a matter of equity, of benefit for the poor and minority students entering a mostly wealthy and white advanced program.
While true, that focus omits much about how fresh perspectives can deepen learning for all students, argue teachers at the Paterson Academy for the Gifted and Talented here.
The 200-student magnet program for grades 2-8, housed within Public School 28, enrolls more than 80 percent low-income students, all of them accelerated a grade level or more in math, language arts, or science. Unlike many districtwide gifted magnet programs, the academy’s enrollment mirrors the district: roughly 60 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black, 5 percent white, and the rest students from Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern backgrounds. The halls are lined with science-fair projects from students, while the walls show off graphed algebra equations and research projects on the origins of idioms.
Maureen Bruins, a grades 5-6 science teacher and a former state teacher of the year, said the project-based format allows for easier differentiation in classes where some students are accelerated a year or two and others work three or four years above their grade.
Ms. Bruins said in schools where she has previously taught it was hard to support advanced students. “There were always one or two who were accelerated, and they did a lot of work on their own. I was working hard to differentiate at all levels, but there’s no extra support,” she said.
The cultural, linguistic, and economic diversity allows for richer explorations of the curriculum, according to 6th grade humanities teacher Tai D. Matthews.
We have some conversations that would just knock your socks off,” Ms. Matthews said. “In one group of six, you’ll have four or five different perspectives, because this one is Syrian, this one from Bangladesh, this one from across the street [in the public-housing tower], so you have all these cultural influences.”
Last year, a Syrian student left to visit relatives, returning while CNN was buzzing with news of the civil war there. “The perspectives that she was able to bring, where do you get that? You get that in Paterson, because we have that diversity,” Ms. Matthews said.
The district tries to identify 1st graders with potential through teacher recommendations and those who score in the top 10 percent on the standardized Cognitive Ability Test in language, mathematics, or nonverbal skills such as understanding puzzles, patterns, and unusual solutions to problems, according to Rita Routé, the district’s supervisor of gifted and talented education. Test scores alone aren’t necessarily a good predictor of how students will do at the academy, Ms. Routé said. “We’ve had some students who came in that first year, and they didn’t have the best tests, but they had a lot of motivation and they persevered; and then we have students who scored at the 99th percentile ... and they are struggling,” she continued.
Several teachers noted that many students had a bit of a culture shock when they arrived. Nicole Slota, who teaches a grades 2-3 combined classroom, said the school tries to teach study skills and perseverance as it ramps up rigor.
“It was frightening for me at first,” said Chyenne Roberts, a 6th grader. “At my old school, I was always the first one finished. [Here,] the work was challenging; you had to really sit and think about it.”
Ms. Bruins said Chyenne initially talked a lot and had to be told to focus frequently, but as she becomes more confident, “she is just blossoming; she goes above and beyond not just in science and language arts, but in her community service.” She reads and gives short science lessons to kindergartners at PS 28.
The academy has benefited from support from Paterson Superintendent Donnie W. Evans and Principal Nancy Castro, but it’s not always been an easy sell to parents. The hulking five-story PS 28 sits across from low-income housing in a high-poverty neighborhood along the Passaic River. “Some parents were not happy about that,” Ms. Routé said.
Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.
Since the school started, the number of high-potential students in Paterson has grown significantly, from 125 in grades 4-8 in 2012 to 200 in grades 2-8 this year, and 250 expected in 2015-16. In 2012, 3 percent of students performed at the advanced level in language arts on state tests, and 80 percent did so in math. By 2014, more than 14 percent were advanced in language arts and 85 percent in math. The school plans to become certified to provide pre-International Baccalaureate programs for the middle school and expand to lower grades.
As the academy’s success and popularity grow, it remains to be seen how long its focus will stay on economically disadvantaged students. From 2012-13 to 2013-14, the percentage of low-income students at PS 28 dropped from 94 percent—just above the district’s 92 percent poverty rate—to 84 percent.
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as At N.J. Gifted Academy, Most Are Poor, Minority