Growing Up Gifted and All The Things That Followed
Gifted and Talented programs in New York City tend to be heralded for their educational and interpersonal benefits, however, what are the lasting mental and emotional effects these programs have on the children?
I’m currently a tutor at a tutoring center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I tutor English Language Arts, writing, early reading and comprehension, and some math. Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment because a big chunk of my clientele is current Gifted and Talented children and children preparing for Gifted and Talented testing.
Let me clarify, I’m an ex Gifted and Talented kid and I absolutely hated it. I didn’t know it then, but as a stressed, depressed and anxious hot-mess of a 20-year-old, I’m realizing that, inadvertently, the gifted program I was in as a child and the separation from my other classmates caused me a lot of trauma.
I remember my grandmother waking me up at 7 o’clock on the dot to get ready for school. I remember dragging myself to the bathroom to stare in the mirror and ridicule my 11-year-old body before hopping in the shower to belt out the lyrics to No Air by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown. After that, I would moisturize and secretly douse myself in my grandmother’s prized Boucheron before putting on the dreadful khaki pants, blue button up (always long sleeved because I hated my arms) and the dark blue sweater vest with “Intermediate School 292 Margaret S. Douglass Gifted & Talented” embroidered on the breast.
I remember hopping in a cab with one of my brothers, blasting the Chiodos and My Chemical Romance from my iPod Nano, praying that day wouldn’t be a scanner day at school. Those days, we had airport-style metal detectors in our lunchroom and imported security guards who searched us to make sure there were no weapons or other contraband brought into school. I mean it was great having an excuse to miss the first 25–40 minutes of math class waiting in line at the scanners. But feeling like a criminal in school and not having my cell phone for the day if I couldn’t manage to finesse it through security sucked.
If it wasn’t a scanner day, I would go to the area in the lunchroom designated for the gifted kids. All of us in our matching blue button-ups and assorted vests and sweaters with the esteemed “Margaret S. Douglas Gifted & Talented” embroidery were like a peninsula — attached to the school, but somehow separate. We were in our blue Valhalla in a sea of yellow. Of course, the kids that weren’t “gifted” or “talented” wore plain yellow polo shirts with khaki pants.
My middle school separated the “gifted” students from the “regular” students by making us wear different colored uniforms.
Yes, you read that right. Different. Colored. Uniforms.
These uniforms created and perpetuated a very visceral and visual idea that because I wore the color blue I was not only smarter than but better than and worthier than my fellow classmates.
The uniforms are an anomaly, but in the chariot race that is the New York City education system, the separation of Gifted and Talented children from their “regular” counterparts is not. The system is extremely competitive. In order to get into the “best” school, one has to be ready to compete in the game of standardized testing.
There’s the Specialized High School Admittance Test (SHSAT) where parents train their racehorse children to be the best of the best to get into one of the eight elite high schools of New York City. Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High School, and The Bronx High School of Science are some of the top picks with them being the most selective and hardest to get into.
There’s also Success Academy along with other charter schools that specialize in accelerated learning for students. Most charter schools in New York City require some type of admissions test.
Then there are the Gifted and Talented schools and programs. These are filled with kids who scored high on Gifted IQ tests like the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and were granted entry into the likes of New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Math (N.E.S.T.+m) and P.S. 132 The Conselyea School along with other district and citywide gifted programs.
Unless a child is a savant in math, English, and IQ tests, then most likely to secure a chance at getting into these gifted schools, the competition becomes less a competition of wits but rather a competition of resources. Some parents have the ability and resources to curate and nurture “giftedness” in their children while some parents don’t.
In my interview with current NYC Department of Education (DOE) teacher and parent of an ex-gifted child, Faith Hester, she said “we’re testing the parent’s support. If you have excellent parent support, you’ll have an exceptional child. If you don’t, the likelihood of success dwindles. There’s a correlation between parent support and student success in my view.”
Catherine Crawford, a mother of two daughters who decided not to put them in gifted programs when they tested in, echoed the sentiment when she told a story about a mother who was “freaking out and screaming at everyone” and remembered thinking “this is so not a good test of these kids’ intelligence. [Its] really like a test of how bananas their parents are.”
In Williamsburg, where I tutor, the average household income according to Point 2 Homes is about $84k a year and the median income is $51k. It’s safe to say that in the neighborhood where some of my kids live in The Oosten whose cheapest rent for a one bedroom is about $3,500, that a lot of their parents have the financial means to afford test prep classes. At my center, fourteen weeks of classes (one class per week) is about $2,000 for individual prep and around $1,500 for group prep classes. This does not include the $75 charge for each class that’s added after the allotted fourteen are used up.
District 19, where my middle school is located, has a median household income of about $62k a year but 40% of the district earns under $50k a year according to Census Reporter. My middle school was made up almost entirely of low-income black and brown kids, but those of us in the gifted program had dedicated parents who supported us in other ways if they couldn’t do so financially.
I could probably write a whole other piece about the tiger moms I’ve witnessed at my job who ranted and raved that their child got a 76 out of 78 on their practice test rather than a 78 out of 78. I could also reminisce about the parents in my middle school gifted class who would flip tables over their child’s 98 GPA dropping to a 97. In their eyes, gifted children got into the best high schools and colleges and those schools didn’t want 97s. They wanted 100s.
But what really makes a child gifted though?
I decided to reach out to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Jeff Danielian, the Teacher Resource Specialist and Editor at the NAGC described the gifted decision process in an email as:
The entire country is split into something like 14,000 school districts, all doing different things. Some have funding and some do not, some mandate identification and some do not, some do gifted ed and some do not. You can be identified as gifted in one district in Maryland and move to Denver and not be anymore, or it could be in the next town over. There are many options that schools have for having eligibility, and these can be something as simple as a test or IQ score, with a strict cut off or it may be more of a multi-criteria approach, where parent/teacher surveys are given, creativity tests administered, essays written, inventories taken, etc. The biggest thing I tell folks is that there must be a connection between the criteria and the program. The question should be “What are you identifying for?”
In New York City, the G&T test that is used for pre-k aged children up to children eligible for second grade is the NNAT and the OLSAT. The NNAT is a visual test where children are tasked to figure out color and pattern based puzzles. It’s used to access their nonverbal reasoning abilities. The OLSAT is the verbal half that accesses a child’s ability to retain learning tasks and follow directions.
Perhaps in New York City, administrators are identifying for children who excel at visual, aural, and verbal learning skills. However, when we think of how equitable this is for all children, one can’t ignore that tests broken up into visual and verbal sections are rather unfair for children who aren’t visual and verbal learners.
I remember having a student who would excel at the NNAT portion of the test because he loved doing puzzles and was a visual learner. However, he would struggle with the aural/verbal part of the test because he wasn’t the type of child who could comprehend something by just listening to it. He needed to see a picture or have words in front of him, something that is not present in the administering of the OLSAT.
Jeff Danielian offers the reality that there are multiple different types of gifted requirements and identifiers. This can be a blessing and a curse. In New York City, the answer to what exactly makes a child gifted seems to be rather ambiguous.
On my phone call with Dawn Graham, an Associate in Education Improvement for the New York State Education Department, she said:
“Statewide there is a requirement for a screening of students. One of them is to identify if a student is gifted. Then the superintendent is notified and then the parents are notified. But after that, there is nothing as far as a mandate or requirement for instructional programming in any district in New York State. So what happens is each district can define if they want to offer a gifted and talented program and how much of a program they want to offer.”
According to Dawn Graham, New York City, which represents a little over 40% of the schooling population in New York state, has its own structure and requirements for what they want to do and identify as gifted and talented.
I reached out to the DOE’s gifted and talented admissions office along with their press spokesman for clarification and received no reply. On the NYC DOE Gifted and Talented page, they define G&T as:
Gifted & Talented (G&T) programs are one way that New York City supports the educational needs of exceptional students. Our G&T programs vary in approach, but they all offer specialized instruction and enrichment opportunities.
This is the only definition for what gifted is considered in New York City and, as for what the webpage offers, this only applies for children who take the NNAT and the OLSAT, something that not all children and parents know about or participate in. I was a gifted child but my parents never got me tested as a child. Granted, I was always in the top class in my elementary school days but I didn’t have this label of “gifted” applied to me officially until middle school.
I reached out to Lisanne Testerman, another NYC DOE teacher and parent and she said in her email:
From my understanding, G&T programs take student IQ or test scores and take the top of the class and program them for a certain day once a week/month to receive specialized instruction in critical thinking activities or STEM projects.
In Lisanne’s experience from her childhood and as a teacher, she saw gifted students who would be taken out of their classes for certain periods to attend gifted classes.
When I asked Faith Hester what she thinks makes a child gifted, she said that part of it, for older children, definitely has to do with “excelling on the state tests.” In New York State, from third grade until eighth grade, students are strongly suggested to take the New York State English Language Arts Test and the New York State Mathematics Test. I say strongly suggested because these tests are not required in most schools in New York City but, a lot of parents do not opt their children out of taking the tests and they’re something that public schools use as a grading factor for children. They’re also stepping stones and preparation for the actually required New York State Regents Exams that take place during a child’s eighth grade to twelfth grade years.
Perhaps it was our high grades on the state tests that got those of us in I.S. 292’s Gifted and Talented into the program.
I reached out to one of my old schoolmates, Tabyas Jones, who was a yellow shirt in the school. He said when he started middle school, he was shocked to see the different uniforms. “It was like gifted was in a completely different school.” Tabyas didn’t even know there was a gifted program and that certain students were chosen to be tested into the program when he got into the school.
I remember having to write an essay, attend a screening interview and provide a record of my transcript for me to be qualified for the gifted program. I interviewed Holly Cocco and Kiara Colome, fellow blue shirts in my middle school, and they remembered slightly different admission processes.
Kiara, who entered our school in the middle of seventh grade, was put into the gifted program based on her excelling grades from her previous school in Long Island. Her ability to acclimate easily into the rigorous program kept her in the blue shirts.
Holly, on the other hand, remembered having to provide her transcript, write an essay, and take a math test to get into I.S. 292’s gifted program.
None of us knew that this wasn’t, in some way, offered to the yellow shirt students. And while we lived in our bubble, where “we were very separated from the general student program, even down to our differently-colored uniforms,” says Kiara, the non-gifted kids, as per Tabyas’ input, felt underappreciated and barred from ever being considered “gifted”:
“You could be a yellow shirt that got good grades but you wouldn’t get the recognition that someone in gifted would get. In sixth grade, I was a total badass. Seventh grade I remember there being this whole turn around. My GPA started skyrocketing. I felt like I never got the recognition that gifted got. […] I even requested to see if I could get into gifted and I remember [one of the blue shirts] vouching for me and offering to switch places because he didn’t even wanna be in blue shirts. They would always say ‘it’s too full.’ You could get kicked out of blue shirts but there was no way for us [the yellow shirts] to get in.”
Tabyas continued to say that “the school was almost like a class system. If you were in a class that ended in 11, 10, or 09, you were gifted. Anything below that you were a yellow shirt and if you were in a class number above that, you were in the special ed classes.”
This, I remember vividly. As a kid, I knew I had to be perfect lest I lose the superior status of “blue shirt.” I also knew I had to stay on top of my game in order to stay in the 11 classes. They dangled the perilous fate of not being gifted anymore over our heads like a suspended blade on a guillotine. In my opinion, it was less like a class system and more like a caste system.
I remember getting an in-school suspension after I was accused of skipping class because I was caught in the bathroom after the late bell rang. Tabyas told me that for a yellow shirt, an in-school suspension meant you spent the week in the detention room with the dean. For me, as a blue shirt, my “punishment” was being relegated to a yellow shirt class for the week. I couldn’t sit with my blue shirt friends in the cafeteria. I didn’t get out of school with them. I barely saw them aside from passing in the hallways. My punishment was being cast out of the blue heaven for a week as if being deemed “regular” was bad.
This, for lack of a better word, segregation of “gifted” and “regular” is not just something that existed in my middle school.
Ivy Bryan, an ex-gifted kid who attended Junior High School 234 Arthur W. Cunningham in Brooklyn and was taken out of the gifted program, mentioned being separated by different wings in the school:
“All of the Gifted and Talented kids were in one wing of the school, the newer wing, while the rest of the school was in the older wing. So Gifted and Talented kids didn’t really interact with anybody in the old wing unless it was during lunch and we never really went into the old wing.”
As a child, Ivy thought she was kicked out of the program for not being smart enough. “I felt like I had lost all of the friends I had made,” she recalled. However, behind the scenes, Ivy’s mother, Amy Bryan, requested for Ivy to be taken out of the classes:
“She would have remained [in Gifted and Talented] were it not for an ill-conceived ‘advanced’ math program that consisted of handing her a book and telling her to go teach herself algebra. She was so distressed by her inability to figure it out that I asked them to remove her from the class, and that meant removing her from the program.”
Amy further mentioned that Ivy and her younger sister went on to be put into more advanced classes as they got older and felt demoralized and like they were failures when they couldn’t keep up. In actuality, Amy says, “they were coping with higher expectations than the rest of the student body.”
This experience was also shared by Catherine Crawford when she talked about taking her daughter out of Mark Twain I.S. 239 for the Gifted and Talented:
“That’s the thing I worried about the most for my daughter, the emotional and mental stress of it all. She had the highest average in her talent which, for her, was enormous stress. She said that she felt like people were just waiting for her to fail, to get a bad grade, so that she would no longer be on the top.”
After hearing her daughter’s confession about how much pressure she felt to be perfect all the time, Catherine took her out of the program completely.
Faith Hester remembered having her daughter tell her about classmates who wanted to commit suicide because of the pressure they felt to stay in the gifted programs. Her daughter, “Victory begged to go to a high school that didn’t have so much pressure.”
This phenomenon of Gifted and Talented children who grow up to have repercussions from the pressure is described as “Gifted Kid Burnout” by Tom Whyman in his 2018 article.
Dr.Howard Steele, psychology professor and chair of Clinical Psychology at The New School for Social Research, said in an email interview that Gifted Kid Burnout
“all depends on the pressure to achieve the child feels, i.e. does the child feel that he/she/they will not be loved UNLESS they achieve all that the parents expect/demand? If the child(ren) know, feel and believe that they are loved, deemed special and have a safe resource if they are distressed, then they can pursue their study and play with confidence that if it works out, great! And if not, ‘I will find some other interest to pursue.’ A classic book on this topic is one written in the early 1970s by Alice Miller, entitled ‘The drama of the gifted child’ — a cautionary take for parents to NOT be overly ambitious, and overly identified with their children, as this is likely to lead to the ‘burn-out’ noted in term ‘Gifted Kid Burnout.’”
Gifted Kid Burnout is something Ivy, Catherine’s daughter, Faith’s daughter and I felt during and after our gifted experiences, not because our parents were too hard on us, but because internally we were too hard on ourselves due to that fear of not being perfect anymore.
“In college, it is so much harder for me to accept an average grade. I feel defeated by getting a totally normal grade,” confessed Ivy.
Holly mentioned spending her lunch periods with her math teacher in sixth grade. “I was embarrassed at being bad at math. I pushed myself to be better because I was ashamed of being bad at math because I was supposed to be gifted.”
Kiara, however, offered a more positive sentiment:
“There’s definitely something to be said for the ego boost [Gifted and Talented] gave us. The teachers and school staff definitely made us believe that we were all destined for great things, and from what I’ve heard/seen, most of us actually have achieved them. Whether that’s due to the program or our self-motivation is uncertain, but that kind of support and dedication to us as students cannot be discounted. Even in a school with limited funds and resources, it was the people that made the difference. There was definitely a lot of pressure, especially at such a young age, but I think it just made us stronger.
Even Catherine mentioned that, even though she was worried, she didn’t know how much her daughter made up in her head. Gifted Kid Burnout could quite frankly be an embodiment of my leftover pubescent angst and current anxiety. But I do think it is something to be recognized when looking at the way gifted and talented programs are created and separated in New York City.
Holly was not wrong when she said Gifted and Talented “taught me how divisive people could be. We already have division of race, division of sexual orientation, and one more thing we have to be divisive about is education.”
New York is highly segregated, not only by the schooling system but also by race. With phenomenons like Gifted Kid Burnout, one can’t help but ask the question of whether or not G&T programs are worth it for the students, specifically students of color.
As of 2012, out of 41,630 students enrolled, only 5,602 students were black in New York State G&T Programs. 4,141 were Hispanic. 24,862 were white.
In 2016, the hashtag #BlackInBrooklynTech, trended as black students in the majority white and Asian school called out the racism they faced. In 2019, only 190 students out of the 4,800 students accepted into the 8 specialized high schools in New York City were black.
This story is not about school segregation but I can’t ignore the aspects of it as described by Nikole Hannah-Jones in Choosing A School For My Daughter In A Segregated City. She writes:
In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers.
Hannah-Jones goes on to point out that these “integrated” schools tend to be majority white with a smattering of black and brown children as tokens.
As of 2018, 40% of NYC public school students are Hispanic, 26% are black and 15% are white. Black and Latinx children are relegated to black and Latinx areas while white children stay in schools with “higher test scores.”
This can be seen with Vox’s school gerrymandering map of the New York City schooling district where schools like Stuyvesant (World Trade Center), Brooklyn Tech (Clinton Hill/Fort Greene), Bronx High School of Science (Upper Kingsbridge), Mark Twain (West Brighton), and N.E.S.T.+m (Lower East Manhattan) are placed in areas that are majority white.
Let’s be honest, we know that high test scores aren’t always a feat of wits. They’re influenced by things like stability and financial support that a lot of the low-income black and brown students of New York City don’t have easy access to. Furthermore, suddenly being labeled gifted and being separated from the rest of the student body can be a heavy weight on students, especially students of color who are being thrown into programs where suddenly none of their classmates and teachers look like them. As Jeff Danielian says:
The negatives [of G&T] come from the folks who don’t understand the field. They find it elitist and think it is only about intelligence and IQ. […] In addition, gifted behaviors, characteristics, in addition to creative kids, can lend themselves to misdiagnosis, underachievement, perfectionism, and in extreme cases, dropping out or in even more extreme, suicide.
The negatives of gifted separation and programming aren’t just on the side of the gifted child.
In my interview with Faith Hester, she said that for the children who aren’t picked or included in the gifted classes it can be “a blow to their confidence” and they can feel as if “there’s something wrong with me.” This is the same sentiment as Dr. Howard Steele when he says “‘non-gifted’ kids can go under-recognized, and under-realized.”
Tabyas Jones, as a yellow shirt in our school, said that “it felt like Gifted and Talented was in a different school because of the different uniforms.” He remembered the labeling of “yellow shirt” made him along with other children think “I’m not gifted. I’m not talented” because the labeling didn’t mention that we were there for academic reasons. Everyone in that school was gifted and talented but the ambiguous labeling and understanding of what that actually meant made the students not included in blue shirts feel lesser than.
For parents, the decision to let your child be put into a Gifted and Talented program can be an extremely easy one or one you think about all the time.
Catherine struggled a lot with deciding whether or not to keep her eldest daughter in a gifted program. “I still wonder if I did her a disservice. I fear I removed great options for her,” she confessed to me over the phone. Faith just wanted her daughter to go to a good school. “Victory landed into gifted through testing.” She wasn’t hunting for a school that was gifted in particular.
I asked Holly’s mother why she thought that Holly was accepted into Gifted and Talented and she said: “At that time you had met all the requirements, criteria, whatever you call it.” Holly had high grades both in school and on the standardized tests, so she was qualified as gifted. For Holly’s mom, that was good enough.
I asked my dad why he thought I ended up in a gifted program and he told me “because you’re exceptionally smart. You’re very inquisitive. You have a thirst for knowledge. You question explanations. You challenge the teachers because you just don’t take it at face value. You wanna investigate and find out why what exists, exists.” For my dad, it was not just my grades but the qualities that he and my administrators saw in me.
Holly, when asked if she would ever send her child to a gifted program as someone who experienced it, said:
“Oh hell no! Definitely not. I would rather teach children to love and to be united. In one way, the clique aspect, I kind of liked that because if you felt alone you always had someone that was there, but other than that I really don’t see a difference between [gifted and not].”
I asked Ivy the same thing and she said:
“I would generally want to steer clear but I know that the way I ended up there was not really by choice and I know that in some ways it signifies an accomplishment. If I were to do it, I would be a lot like my parents and allow my child to be in a Gifted and Talented program but I try to make it clear that 1) they’re not better than anyone else and 2) doing their best is enough.”
Finally, I asked Kiara the same thing and in her email she said:
“I definitely would, if I’m sure that the program, school, and staff are adequately supportive, motivating, and caring. Being in those G&T programs definitely motivated me to strive for more. However, I’ve also started to identify with many other students on the internet who’ve realized that the flattery that comes with being labeled as gifted at such a young age doesn’t always last. As I grew older, school became harder and I had to learn that life and success won’t always be as easy as it was when I was a kid.”
So, I guess the question we’re left with is are gifted and talented programs really worth it?
Academically, gifted and talented programs allow for a space where accelerated children can be challenged. Catherine mentioned that one of her friend’s kids considered Stuyvesant “a safe place to be smart.” In a world where “smarter” kids or “nerdy” kids can be bullied, having a separate G&T class for them can allow for them to feel free to express their interests. Tabyas mentioned being frustrated and annoyed in his classes because he would be one of the few who wasn’t goofing around and wanted to genuinely learn.
It can also allow for healthy competition. “In order to be the best you are, you need to be able to compete with other students that are at your level,” my dad said in his interview. He continued to say, “You can’t have extremely smart kids with kids that just don’t care. You need to have those groups separated so they can all strive to do better.”
Dawn Graham feared that “advanced students or gifted students will feel held back or ignored in classes that don’t challenge them.” “Why should students who are accelerated stay in classes with kids who aren’t on their level,” Faith Hester asked.
To this, I can agree. In my week as a “yellow shirt,” I was bored because their class was weeks behind mine and learning things at a rate that felt too slow for me. The whole week I felt like I learned nothing because I was uninterested and uninspired.
In the G&T Myths page that Jeff Danielian sent me to it stated:
“A national study conducted by the Fordham Institute found that 58% of teachers have received no professional development focused on teaching academically advanced students in the past few years and 73% of teachers agreed that “Too often, the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school — we’re not giving them a sufficient chance to thrive.”
So yes, gifted and talented programs do offer a great opportunity for more accelerated learners. However, this should be stressed in the title that these kids are academically gifted or academically accelerated to stop confusion for other children who do not fit in this category.
Amy, Ivy’s mother, said:
“I am very egalitarian, so the idea that anyone is being considered as ‘better’ or ‘special’ has always really bothered me. On the other hand, how can you tell your child you don’t want them to have the chance to learn more advanced things? There is a lot of focus on competition that comes from the educational system itself, and the idea that any parent would elect NOT to allow their child to be in the program is something they cannot really wrap their heads around. There is pressure to accept the opportunity on behalf of your child, and to decline feels like you might be denying them access to things. Also, I would not want them to feel that I did not think they were capable of learning anything at all that they wanted to. It ends up being a very complicated decision if you really take it apart, but I would probably do it the same way if I could do it over again. As parents, we did allow each child to decide themselves from junior high forward whether or not to try out for any kind of advanced placement and there was never any pressure on them to do so from us.”
Amy’s assurances to her daughters that they were good enough and that their scores in school didn’t define them, helped them in the long run. My dad saw the stress and pressure I put on myself as a kid and assured me that he would love me no matter what color my uniform was.
When we, as parents, educators, and students alike, place such weight onto arbitrary labels like “gifted” and “talented” we end up in situations like Dr. Howard Steele describes where “rich parents eager to have their ‘gifted’ youth accepted to university underscores the extent to which parents over-identify with, and ultimately damage, their children, by pushing them to achieve without thought for the social and emotional well-being that their mental health will depend upon.”
As an adult, it’s hard to remember that being a kid is hard. Being separated from your schoolmates can make childhood even harder. Being a gifted student doesn’t mean that one’s child will become a burnout. It also doesn’t mean that they’ll become the next Albert Einstein. But if we pay attention to our children’s emotional and social wellbeing in the gifted and talented institutions that already exist, perhaps we will be a step closer to finding an institution that fully works for the children. One that does not separate the children by a uniform color. One that does not separate the children by wings in the school. But rather, one that is equitable and available for all parents and children to access.
This story was originally written in the Spring of 2019