Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
An increasing number of Queens parents are fighting the Department of Education on a recent, and seemingly abrupt, decision to shrink one of the city’s most successful academic programs: the middle school gifted and talented program, known as The Academy, at P.S. 122 Mamie Fay in Astoria.
The D.O.E. said it must make room in the years ahead for general education students at the middle school at P.S. 122. But the change has prompted both families of G&T; and general education students to jump to The Academy’s defense, for fear of dismantling a beloved G&T; middle school program and, in the process, creating an even more crowded school for all students.
"Why would anyone agree to a plan that destroys one of our most successful middle schools in our district, in our city and in our state?" said Valarie LaMour, a member of the Community Education Council for District 30, at a recent public meeting. "Shame on the D.O.E. and the chancellor, the mayor for this ill-advised plan."
The recent turmoil hinges on P.S. 122’s identity. The school serves kindergarten through eighth grade students. But the school’s community has viewed P.S. 122 as a kindergarten through fifth grade neighborhood school plus a separate middle school program that serves only G&T; students. The elementary grades each have a G&T; class, and these students continue on to The Academy for middle school along with other students from nearby G&T; programs.
According to school staff, this has been the set-up at P.S. 122 for at least the past 25 years.
But, about two weeks ago, the D.O.E. told the P.S. 122 community that it classifies the school as a kindergarten through eighth grade school, and that P.S. 122 fifth graders in the school's zone “have a right to remain” for middle school if they choose to do so. The D.O.E. said it is applying chancellor’s regulation A-101.
"The regulation is being enforced to ensure equity for all P.S. 122 students," said Devon Puglia, a D.O.E. spokesman.
But education officials did not say why the regulation is being applied to P.S. 122 now after decades functioning as two separate programs. Nor did they say definitively whether or not this regulation would change enrollment practices at any other kindergarten through eighth grade schools in the city.
If the D.O.E. follows through with its plan, the middle school grades at P.S. 122, rather than being exclusively for G&T; students, will eventually shrink to one G&T; class per grade to make room for general education or special education students who wish to continue on for middle school. The change will begin with incoming kindergarten students, so the middle school will not see changes until 2019, Puglia said.
At the same time, the D.O.E. is adding an "academically screened" middle school program to I.S. 126, Albert Shanker School for Visual and Performing Arts, saying it is responding to demand for more G&T; seats in the district.
"Throughout this process, we have been listening to and working with the community," said Puglia. "Community feedback has been instrumental to these changes, and the new program at I.S. 126 was borne out of our taking and heeding feedback from parents and school leaders."
He said the new program means that there will be a net gain of G&T; middle school seats in the next few years.
D.O.E. representatives from the Office of Portfolio Management said that the program at I.S. 126 would be modeled after The Academy at P.S. 122. District 30 parents originally cheered these additional seats -- until they learned about changes coming to The Academy.
Parents passed around a microphone at a meeting last week to express outright anger at the D.O.E.'s decision, bewilderment at why it would truncate a top-ranking middle school program and resentment that the D.O.E. would see adding G&T; seats at one school as interchangeable with another.
"We're emotionally attached to our children doing well, and it doesn't always happen that you open a new G&T; program and it's immediately successful," said Jeffrey Guyton, C.E.C. co-president.
"You don't create a reputation within a year, you don't create a reputation in two years," said Jean Libert, whose son, a kindergartner, is in a G&T; program at P.S. 150 and tracked to enter The Academy at P.S. 122 for middle school. "This is a school that has its reputation because it's grown over time."
In addition, C.E.C. members said that once The Academy shrinks in size, the district will actually have a net loss of seats for gifted and talented middle schoolers.
Plus, parents are concerned that allowing rising fifth graders to remain at P.S. 122 will greatly increase the school population and prompt even more crowding in a building that already has four lunch periods beginning at about 10:45 a.m.
"There's been speculation that we would have to give up our library to create a classroom or two," said Anastasia Cunningham, the parent of a second grader in P.S. 122's general education track and the vice president of the school's parent-teacher association. She said that, initially, she saw the D.O.E.'s plans as a positive change for parents of general education students.
But the P.T.A. is estimating that, if all eligible rising fifth graders stay on for middle school grades, the school would lose valuable resources to make space, like an art room and science lab.
"None of those things make me happy as a parent," she said. "General education, gifted and talented, it doesn't matter."
Cunningham said parents are only speculating at this point about how P.S. 122 might welcome more middle school students, because she said the D.O.E. has not provided information on how it would make changes to the building or rezone the district, if it comes to that.
The P.T.A. is holding a meeting at the school on Wednesday evening. She said she hopes that D.O.E. representatives will attend to provide some more information on their plan.