A Gifted and Talented Program Grows in Carroll Gardens

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Early this week, as the deadline for the kindergarten registration in the city’s gifted and talented schools approached, many parents across the city said they were relieved to finally know where their children would be going to school in the fall, particularly after so much chatter about the record numbers of students qualifying for limited slots.

But at Public School 32, Samuels Mills Sprole School, a small prekindergarten-to-fifth-grade school in Carroll Gardens, which opened a gifted and talented program last year, there was only anxiety, as parents were told by officials at the school that there were more children admitted than there were actual openings in the small program.

Those parents spent the last few weeks calling the school, one another and the Department of Education, and soliciting advice from public school consultants. Their worry was finally squelched when an e-mail appeared in their in-boxes Tuesday afternoon from the city’s enrollment office.

“P.S. 032 SAMUELS MILLS SPROLE (15K032) will be opening an additional kindergarten G&T; class,” it read. “Your child’s G&T; offer will be honored at the school.”

It is a telling snapshot of the roller-coaster ride many parents have been on since the city announced in the spring that close to 5,000 kindergarteners had qualified for one of the city's gifted and talented slots after taking the Otis-Lennonn School Ability Test, or OLSAT, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment exam – a 22 percent increase from last year. Students have to score a 90 percent or above to qualify.

It is also a bird’s-eye view into how a new, unknown gifted program can catapult into the “coveted” category within the span of one year at a time when parents are increasingly anxious to secure limited spots. In fast-gentrifying neighborhoods like District 15’s Carroll Gardens, reputations on which schools are good or desirable can change in the blink of an eye. P.S. 32, at Hoyt and Union Streets, is on the edge of the Gowanus neighborhood, which houses the Gowanus housing projects.

It has gotten mixed reviews from the city – earning A’s in recent years, but a C in 2010-11. And its test scores place it below other neighborhood elementary schools. In 2011, only 40.5 percent of its students were proficient in reading and 55.9 percent were proficient in math. At nearby P.S. 58, a better-known and highly coveted school, 73.3 percent of students were proficient in reading and 79.6 percent were proficient in math.

But demographic shifts in the neighborhood and word of mouth are accelerating the way parents size up schools. A widely circulated entry on carrollgardens.patch.com, titled “Our Neighborhood’s Hidden Gem,” is credited by many for bringing the program to the attention of the neighborhood.

Housed in a trailer behind the school’s picturesque brick building, P.S. 32's gifted program had only 15 children this school year, even though it could have accommodated 25. Last year, when it began, it did not have more takers. But this year, according to parents and officials at the school, many more parents applied, and admission was given to about 70. About 40 of those said they wanted the spots, and that's when the school realized they did not have enough room for everyone.

Over-enrolling students in neighborhood gifted programs is common, particularly in District 15, where many parents opt to send their children to top-rated and highly sought-after neighborhood schools instead of the more remotely located schools with gifted programs where their children gain acceptance. But the situation at P.S. 32 went way beyond that, and many people believe that it is partly because education officials had no idea that word of mouth had spread and P.S. 32 had become such a hot commodity in certain Carroll Garden circles.

“The Department of Education was blind-sided,” said Joyce Szuflita, a public and private schools consultant in Brooklyn who has advised parents throughout the process. “These programs usually build slowly.”

The school’s principal, Deborah Ann Florio, declined to comment for this article.

But Becky Alford, a teacher who has served as the unofficial community liaison to the gifted and talented program, said the school became aware of the increasing interest in the program early on in the school year when hundreds of parents began requesting tours. The school originally scheduled three gifted and talented tours, then added three more because of demand.

“The tours were lining out the door, around the corner,” said Ms. Alford. “We had to start them late just to get everybody signed in.”

Parents with children in the gifted program this year say they see themselves as pioneers, placing their children in the school when many others opted not to, deeming the school of lesser quality than other nearby ones.

“Last year, no one wanted to take a chance,” said Alexandra Clarke, 37, a Park Slope resident who has a son in the gifted kindergarten there. “The school was totally under the radar.”

But Ms. Clarke, echoing the thoughts of other parents there, said she “had a feeling” all along that that would quickly change, in part because of her own promoting of the school to friends and neighbors. She said the school had a cozy, warm feel; impressive art, science and music curriculums; and a beloved teaching staff. This year, students in her son’s class studied local markets, differentiating between those that were co-ops, mom-and-pop shops and chains. And an architect, who came to the school to help redesign the library, brought his blueprints into several classrooms across different grades to introduce students to basic design elements.

Parents unsure earlier this week if they had gained acceptance into the school said news of how much current parents liked it there was no consolation.

One mother, a freelance writer from Cobble Hill, said she withdrew her daughter from the private school she now attends when she learned that she had a spot at the school next year, only to become concerned that she might lose it. She said not knowing had been the hardest part: “We’ve been on an emotional roller coaster.”

Some said they wished the Education Department had done more to reassure them all along. Before the e-mail Tuesday afternoon, many said they had spent a lot of time speculating that their children might be sent to one of the other gifted and talented programs in the district. Others worried that the city would take a first-come-first-serve tactic, and leave them out completely. One mother said she was considering moving if P.S. 32 didn’t work out.

A spokesman for the city said the Education Department regretted that parents had experienced concern about their slots. But it was impossible for them to open a class without first knowing whether it was needed. And parents who called the enrollment office, officials said, were actually told the city would honor its promise. It is not unusual for the city to add gifted sections to schools when more students than expected enroll in programs, said Matthew Mittenthal, a department spokesman.

Tuesday evening, Ms. Szuflita said the news that the city had expanded P.S. 32's program was good news for everyone. “It means the parents who want to be there, will be there,'' she said. "And it is never a problem to have more high-performing kids to balance out your test scores.”