The holiday performances always gave it away.
Every December, as students at Public School 9 in Brooklyn stood to sing holiday songs while their parents looked on, one class would be made up of a lot of white students, followed by another class of almost all black students.
From the outside, the racial divide might seem curious as PS 9 is one of the most diverse elementary schools in Brooklyn: Out of about 940 students, 40% are black, 31% are white, 17% are Hispanic and 9% are Asian. But inside, many students spend their days learning in separate groups. The gifted and talented classes are attended by mostly white and Asian kids; the general education classes, mostly black students.
“It wasn’t obvious until you sat in the audience and watched everyone,” said Afiya Lahens, a black parent whose daughter is in the general education track.
Then something remarkable happened. After years of discussion and community meetings, a mixed-race committee of parents and teachers voted to phase out the gifted and talented track for future students at PS 9, specifically to decrease racial and economic segregation.
New York City’s education department agreed to follow the decision: Starting this fall, there will be no gifted track for the school’s incoming kindergartners. Instead, PS 9 will offer enrichment opportunities to more students based on their individual strengths and interests.
The move put PS 9 at the forefront of controversy surrounding racial integration in the nation’s largest school system – and one of its most segregated. It’s raised questions about whether school systems can have both excellence and equity and whether integration efforts should come from parents or official intervention.
The controversies have been particularly acute in Brooklyn, where white and affluent families populate neighborhoods historically inhabited by black and Latino residents. Gentrification has displaced people of color by driving up rents and intensified racial stratification in classrooms.
Phasing out gifted and talented programs at PS 9 will test a controversial recommendation from a school diversity panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to end such programs at all elementary schools in the city. The panel’s rationale: Gifted programs are biased and serve to segregate children along lines of race and class, in large part because admission to most programs is based on a screening exam parents can register their children to take, starting at age 4.