Is Affirmative Action The Solution To NYC Public Schools’ Diversity Problem?

Photo: Liz Marie

Last week, The New York Daily News reported that P.S. 139 in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, is shutting down its popular gifted program due to a lack of diversity in the predominately white and Asian classes. Principal Mary McDonald told parents in a letter that starting with the Kindergarten class of Fall 2014, students “will be heterogeneously grouped to reflect the diversity of our student body and the community we live in.”

So far, parents are divided. Some want to believe that McDonald “really wants the best for the kids.” Others have characterized her decision as an overreaction to a non-existent problem. Readers also chimed in using the Daily News’ comment board to air their grievances. Some characterized the change as nothing more than a punishment that would force gifted students to share classrooms with “dummies.” Others said white and Asian students will always have the advantage whether there’s a gifted program or not. And from there it evolved into a larger discussion of America’s failing school system.

My initial reaction was that Principal McDonald’s decision is a form of inequality-based affirmative action. McDonald may be shuttering the program instead of establishing a diversity quota, but ultimately she is creating equality instead of waiting for it to happen, a concept that is at the heart of affirmative action.

I am a native of the South—North Georgia to be specific, a region where affirmative action was written into the fabric of public  institutions to reverse the effects of centuries of racism and intolerance. Growing up, I told myself many times that I made it as far as I did on merit alone, but the idea that I am where I am by the grace of affirmative action still nags me. It’s a perpetual what if? 

And yet, with the limited diversity of the working world’s “gifted programs” (i.e. Wall Street, news publications, research labs, tech companies etc.), public institutions are the last bastions of diversity. We have to ask ourselves if it’s the public institution’s responsibility to protect and create diversity , and whether that fight begin at the most basic level, the public school. Which is more important for a child: exposure to the ever-growing diversity of the city (early and often) or a learning environment that promotes a very specific type of intelligence? Which creates a more tolerant and thoughtful human being?

I am approaching this issue from personal experience. I was admitted to my elementary school’s gifted program in 5th grade for “exceptional creativity,” and it immediately afforded me many privileges. I was funneled straight into middle school gifted classes, and in 8th grade we attended seminars on magnet high schools and were automatically enrolled in a pre-AP class if we decided to attend the local high school instead. As far as I can remember, students outside the gifted program were not given the same talks, or at least the idea wasn’t pressed on them nearly as much as it was on us. Once I entered high school, all my classes were honors or AP, and I spent the majority of my time with the same group of extremely smart kids day-in and day-out. The only time I shared classrooms with “on-level” students was in P.E. and Health.

It was nice to be with people who thought about things the way I did. But throughout my life, I’ve found that my most valuable experiences have occurred alongside people who weren’t in those classes, people whose intelligence is completely different from my own but no less valuable. Their standardized test scores, an early measurement of “giftedness,” hadn’t piqued anyone’s interest in elementary school. And that altered the path of their lives in a fundamental way.

Is Principal McDonald’s decision a sound one? Perhaps not. Gifted programs are valuable to the kids in them. But I also refuse to believe that the Black, Hispanic and other minority children outside P.S. 139’s gifted program are less intelligent as so many commenters more or less said. The education system gives up on students in “on-level” classrooms so early on, when children are too young to fully realize that a test will change their lives. There are plenty of opportunities for smart children. In fact, those opportunities present themselves again and again, but non-traditionally gifted children only get a handful of chances to prove their worth. The definition of “giftedness” is far too narrow to be deemed meaningful in a world where we now know that intelligence can present itself in so many ways.

 Follow Nikita Richardson on Twitter @nikitarbk 




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