School Colors Episode 8 : Code Switch When the District 28 diversity planning process came around, many Chinese parents had already been activated a year earlier by the fight to defend the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

In this episode, we ask why gifted education gets so much attention, even though it affects relatively few students. How do we even define what it means to be "gifted"? And by focusing on these programs, whose needs do we overlook?

School Colors Episode 8: 'The Only Way Out'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1109160606/1109237170" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:

Hey, y'all. So we're coming up to the end of this season of School Colors, and we'd really like to hear from you. Have you heard something on the show that's really resonated with you or changed the way you think about race, class, power and schools in your own life? Leave us a voicemail at 929-483-6387. You might even hear your voice in the last episode. This goes out to everybody, but especially our friends in Queens. OK. On with the show.

STELLA XU: My name is Stella Xu. We are in Forest Hills, Queens in District 28 in New York City, and I am a parent of a current seventh grader at a middle school in Forest Hills.

MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:

Stella is a parent leader at her son's school and the education chair of the Forest Hills Asian Association. She was born in Shanghai.

XU: Going back a bit, my father was a very good student. He was the top of his class, smartest kid ever, graduated top of his high school class. And unfortunately, just as he was about to go to college, the Cultural Revolution happened. So during that time, all the educational institutions in China shut down. He wasn't afforded a chance to attend college. And he wanted to come to the states because social mobility in China is very limited. So, you know, to risk a corny joke, he wanted to come here and pursue the American dream.

GRIFFITH: Stella moved to Queens in 1987 when she was 10 years old. Her family's first apartment was in a neighborhood called Elmhurst.

XU: My father, my mother and I in one bedroom, and it was another family - it was a father and his teenage son and his teenage daughter.

FREEDMAN: So it was six of you in a two-bedroom apartment?

XU: Yeah, it was crowded.

(LAUGHTER)

XU: I think by American standards, like, if I were to explain it to my son, he would be horrified. But for me, you know, I was in a - I was already in a two-bedroom apartment with my grandparents and my cousin. We didn't have running water. There was a communal kitchen that was shared by everybody on the floor. So to me, when I came to Elmhurst, I was like, oh, my God, I have a flushing toilet. This is the best thing ever (laughter). My father delivered Chinese food. My mom worked in a garment factory. And I went to Cornell. And I went to Cornell because I studied my butt off, and I took the SHSAT, and I went to the library, and I photocopied the prep books, and I sat there, and I, you know, spent hours study for this test to get into Brooklyn Tech.

FREEDMAN: Stella went to Brooklyn Tech, which is one of a handful of public high schools that are considered the most elite in New York City. They're called the specialized high schools. And there's only one way to get in. You take the specialized high school admissions test, better known as the SHSAT. Stella's story is a perfect illustration of what this test and these schools can do.

XU: I know that for somebody with my background, an immigrant who didn't speak a word of English, who came here poor, for me to have gone to Cornell, it was because of education.

GRIFFITH: Stella now lives in Forest Hills with family of her own. She has a comfortable home and a good job with the city agency. By almost any standard, she has a pretty decent life, a life she believes she owes in no small part to where she went to high school.

FREEDMAN: But a couple of years ago, the path she had taken came under threat. For years, advocates had been saying that SHSAT was systematically keeping Black and Latinx kids out of the most elite and well-resourced high schools in the city. Finally, in June 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio went public with a plan to replace the test.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mayor de Blasio says he wants to scrap the standardized test required for the city's eight specialized high schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Over the weekend, de Blasio stepped up his push to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students in elite schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. But Asian students say his proposal would end up denying them admission. Asian students make up about 16% of the school system, but about 52% of those accepted to the eight schools.

XU: That is a test. And those schools mean a lot to the Asian community. And the fact that the Asian community wasn't consulted about this proposal before it came out had really caused a lot of bad feelings in the Asian community. We felt under attack. We felt that we weren't consulted, that we weren't respected. So by the time the District 28 diversity plan came out, I feel that a lot of people in the Asian community felt that this was just another attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman. In the last episode, we got to know some of the parents who opposed the diversity planning process in District 28. We heard why they believed the process was a sham and how they believed the plan would harm their children.

FADIA MOHAMA: I can't. I just - I cannot have my kid go on a bus and go to another school.

JEAN HAHN: It was about busing. It was about transit. And they kept saying, oh, no, no, we don't have a plan. Bullshit. They had a plan.

GRIFFITH: But there was another faction in the district that organized against diversity planning that we haven't really heard from yet - Asian immigrant families.

FREEDMAN: We're going to spend a lot of this episode talking to and about Asian Americans, but we know the category of Asian is imperfect. New York City's official definition of Asian and Pacific Islander encompasses 30 ethnic groups and 50 languages. That's a lot of different histories and experiences.

GRIFFITH: Forest Hills is home to a growing community of immigrants, specifically from China. And when the District 28 diversity plan came around, many of these Chinese parents had already been activated a year earlier by the fight to defend the SHSAT.

FREEDMAN: But the specialized high school exam is just one example of so-called merit-based admissions to advanced or gifted education programs. These programs can start as early as kindergarten, and they have become a third rail in New York City politics. In this episode, we're going to talk about why.

GRIFFITH: Why does gifted education get so much attention, even though it affects relatively few students?

FREEDMAN: How do we even define what it means to be gifted?

GRIFFITH: And by focusing on these programs, whose needs do we overlook?

YVETTE JACKSON: People say, well, look, it's just some kids are smarter and some kids just aren't.

JONATHAN PLUCKER: That's not how talent works. We know that now.

TAJH SUTTON: All these notions about this community works hard and this community is lazy. I've heard some terrible shit.

XU: They would say, well, you know, Asians are basically like white people. So, you know, we don't really have to take into account their considerations.

JING WANG: Immigrant don't have voice. We don't have a right to vote. We cannot change anything. No one going to hear us.

JAY CASPIAN KANG: You're very privileged, and I'm washing dishes. I don't want my kid to wash dishes. And this is the only way out. Tell me another way out. I have no answer for them.

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Access to specialized or advanced education programs has always been a big deal in this city. Even back in the '70s and '80s when I was in public school, those programs were reserved for a select few. I went to a very large, virtually all-Black middle school in southeast Queens. Every year, 30 or so sixth graders were cherry-picked and put on an accelerated track. I was one of them. We skipped a grade, got SHSAT training and were coached to enter a specialized high school. Why a single class of 30? It was like someone had set an arbitrary number and said, these kids will get to feel special and thrive. Even when I was 12, it didn't seem right. Eventually, a lot of my friends, many of whom were in accelerated programs as well, went on to Brooklyn Tech. At the time, it was seen as the place where smart Black kids went. In 1981, the school was more than 50% Black.

FREEDMAN: But by 2017, Brooklyn Tech was only 6% Black. During the same period, the school's Hispanic population dropped from 13% to 7%. The percentage of white students stayed basically the same at about 20%, while the Asian student population at Tech went from 17% to 61%. This year, nearly half of all students who took the SHSAT were Black and Hispanic, but they got only 9% of the offers to the eight specialized high schools that use the test.

GRIFFITH: These schools enroll only about 5% of all New York City high school students, but they're a powerful symbol of upward mobility. So those demographic numbers sparked a call for change.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Segregation has got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: These children who don't get into the schools, they are us. They have hopes and dreams just like us. Our so-called competition could be our friends if we believe that we deserve something more than a standardized test.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: We said no justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No peace.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: No justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No peace.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Abolish the SHSAT.

FREEDMAN: This kind of rhetoric was alarming to many parents who really believe in this test, parents like Donghui Zang.

DONGHUI ZANG: So I was born in China in 1970 in a very small village near Beijing.

FREEDMAN: Donghui has lived in Forest Hills since 2002 and works in finance. But he grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution.

ZANG: And at that time, you know, it was still under Mao, all right? So there was no national level college exam. So I think every year it was, like, two - one or two high school graduate from that village, which has - had about 2,000 people population. And I think probably only one high school graduate can be recommended to enter college.

FREEDMAN: And according to Donghui, people who were children or relatives of village officials had an advantage in getting recommended for college, which didn't leave a whole lot of opportunity for him or anyone else.

ZANG: At that time, you know, you just - you cannot do here, like, take the exam or do, like, what's in China now and then go to college. So there was just no hope, so...

FREEDMAN: After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China got a new leader, and things changed.

ZANG: The first thing he did was to restore the national college entrance exam. I remember at that time, you know, the whole - in the whole world, in my small village, they were cheering because they saw hope.

GRIFFITH: Donghui was eventually admitted to one of China's best universities.

ZANG: So that's why, I mean, I believe exam. And exam, it was objective. It was fair. It allowed hope for the poor family, for the poor children like me.

GRIFFITH: Donghui's experience of education in China, of first having no opportunity to advance and then taking an exam that gave him a pathway to higher education and a better life made him a strong believer in standardized tests. He sees testing as a way for people like him, especially other immigrants, to work hard and be rewarded for that hard work. Both of Donghui's sons went to a specialized high school, Stuyvesant, widely considered the best of the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: When Mayor de Blasio proposed eliminating the SHSAT in 2018, his plan was to replace the exam with a process that would admit the top 7% of students from every middle school across the city. Just to be clear, this is still a form of merit-based admissions. Nevertheless, Donghui was concerned that scrapping the test would lower academic standards at these schools.

ZANG: We didn't want to sacrifice quality, right, and, you know, just for nice chart for DOE.

GRIFFITH: You hear this kind of thing a lot - the suggestion that to admit more Black and Latinx students, even those at the top of their class, would mean sacrificing quality. It really pushes a button for me.

FREEDMAN: But Donghui insists his defense of the test is just about objectivity and fairness.

ZANG: It was not only unfair to the students, to the families who was working hard to take the test, you know, they sacrificed time, they sacrificed money. You know, they sacrificed vacation, they sacrificed restaurant, you know, to support the children. That was how those families succeed.

FREEDMAN: Because we're talking about just eight schools with only so many seats, this was inevitably a zero-sum game. Whatever the intent, the mayor's plan would have resulted in fewer Asian students getting into the specialized high schools. So Donghui believed the plan was not just unfair, it was targeted.

GRIFFITH: And he wasn't alone. He got plugged into a growing movement of East Asians who are also feeling disenfranchised and under attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KANG: They're mostly Chinese American, they're mostly recent immigrants - right? - and they have been activated in a ways, nationally, through WeChat groups.

GRIFFITH: Jay Caspian Kang is a columnist for The New York Times. He's done a lot of research and reporting on the mobilization of Asian Americans like Donghui.

KANG: They have sort of this reactionary politics that is extremely well organized and is really centered around schooling. They will show up to every single thing that you ask them to show up to. They will write emails, you know, even with limited English. They're very good at exerting political pressure on elected officials, and they certainly know the pain points of those elected officials. Like, this is a group that is trying to get things done. And yeah, they're incredibly effective.

FREEDMAN: Jing Wang, another Chinese American parent in Forest Hills, saw this movement grow in her own neighborhood.

WANG: We have a WeChat group for our neighborhood, like - or mostly like Chinese parents in that WeChat world. And it's definitely changed in the past couple years. Before, we just sort of talked about the kids in Richmond class or talk about education, share - like, trade used goods and just, like, very parenting stuff. But then now it's most of the time on those WeChat group are people calling for a rally or people, like, suggesting votes for certain candidates. And it's turned sour (laughter) kind of because it's this whole special high school and there's so many education, like, political topics start discussing in the WeChat - in the parents' group.

KANG: I remember talking to somebody and they said that their kid was at Bronx Science and the parents had, like, a homework WeChat group together - right? - and that this is how they would just sort of check up to make sure their kids are doing their homework. And that became this vehicle of, you know, talking about the SHSAT, talking about how de Blasio was trying to hurt Asian families.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Parents in Asian American groups say the city's plan to scrap the admissions test for elite high schools amounts to racism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's unfair. We oppose it because you against all Asian people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all white. They never had this problem again when Stuyvesant was all Jewish. Now all of a sudden, they see it - one too many Chinese, and they say, hey, it's not right.

GRIFFITH: That's not exactly true. People have had problems with Stuyvesant from way back. Anyway...

FREEDMAN: Jay understands why these parents feel attacked. But he also thinks there's just too much attention on these schools from everybody.

KANG: You know, these are not the only schools in New York City. And at times, it feels like the conversation is about this - right? - like, the whole point of having an education in New York City is to one day get into Stuyvesant. Like, it's just not true. I think that the efforts to diversify these schools are in good faith, and I think that they're probably necessary. And at the same time, you know, I sometimes worry that, like, the focus on them specifically sort of reifies this idea that we are all in this scarcity death march - right? - that there are only a few ways to be successful, that only certain types of living your life through certain pathways matter.

FREEDMAN: Throughout this reporting, I've had similar thoughts. These schools hold so much symbolic weight in this city. Changing them was destined to really piss people off. So I wanted to know, with so many other problems in the school system, why would progressive activists and the mayor himself choose to focus on the specialized high schools?

SUTTON: When I came into the movement, it was already something that people were really galvanizing around. It wouldn't have been my first choice of an issue.

FREEDMAN: Tajh Sutton is a parent leader in Brooklyn and the program manager for Teens Take Charge, an organization led by young people who have spoken out against the SHSAT.

SUTTON: There's a lot of data that we can talk about in terms of representation. And so a lot of people choose that as the point for their organizing - right? - where there's only eight Black students that got into, you know, Staten Island Tech, or there's only 23 Latino students that got into Brooklyn Tech. And that's terrible but we all - like, we have to talk about the full picture - right? - 'cause those eight students, those 23 students that go to those schools are dealing with a culture that does not actually respect or value them as people.

GRIFFITH: She knows that firsthand.

SUTTON: So I am actually a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School. I have a mother and a father and a godmother who are also graduates of Brooklyn Technical High School. So it was really important to them that I go there for a lot of the reasons that people still think it's important to attend those schools. While I was there, I actually had a really difficult time. My grades were OK, but my mental health was in the toilet, and I was actually almost pushed out by my guidance counselor, who assumed that the work was too hard when, really, I was just depressed.

But the institutions were built - right? - on the premise that a certain type of child deserves to be there. And we hear that language and that thinking and that behavior and that attitude whenever the SHSAT and gifted and talented programming come up, all these notions about who is deserving of a quality education and who works hard, and this community works hard, and this community is lazy. I've heard some terrible shit in forums - right? - and, like, in spaces where this is the topic of discussion.

GRIFFITH: She says these discussions are often racialized.

SUTTON: The really, really pressing and prevalent and violent narratives are that Asian folks care more about education than Black folks, that if Black folks spent their time and energy and money on, you know, tutoring, for example, and not name-brand sneakers - if you took your child to the library instead of buying them Jordans, maybe they could get into a specialized high school. Like, word for word, this is what a parent said at one of the forums.

GRIFFITH: Tajh has been very outspoken on these issues, but like Jay, she's actually tired of so much focus on who gets into the specialized high schools.

SUTTON: All of the resources being poured into those eight schools, all of the promotion being targeted at those eight schools would be much better spent equitably provided to - you know, like, 90% of our New York City public schools are underfunded. So to have that happening while one school has 27 different dance programs is highly unacceptable. I'm down with abolishing the SHSAT. But there's also so much at play that the SHSAT is, like, representative of. Like, it's much easier to say end the SHSAT, knowing very well that it might not happen than, say, I need you to fund every public school.

FREEDMAN: In the end, nothing actually happened to the SHSAT.

KANG: You know, de Blasio - I don't know why he decided to pick this fight, you know, but he did. And he sort of flubbed it, I think.

FREEDMAN: The SHSAT is mandated by a state law, so only the state legislature can change it. And after all this political pressure, not to mention a million-dollar media campaign funded by prominent alumni, the mayor's plan to change the test died in Albany.

KANG: The SHSAT still exists. Stuyvesant is still - you know, lets in 8 to 10 Black students a year, right? Like, nothing has changed. And what he's done is created this very motivated political force in - mostly in Queens.

FREEDMAN: And for that very motivated force in Queens, the SHSAT was just the tip of the iceberg - after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Even after the mayor's failed attempt to replace the specialized high school exam, the fight over advanced education was far from over.

GRIFFITH: The battleground was about to move from the oldest kids in the system to the youngest.

FREEDMAN: Mayor de Blasio appointed a school diversity advisory group better known as the SDAG, the latest in a long line of commissions created over the years to study the issue of segregation in schools.

GRIFFITH: In August 2019, the SDAG published its second and most controversial report, a report that would only exacerbate tensions between the mayor's office and the Asian American parents who were still pissed over the SHSAT debacle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: A report expected to be officially released tomorrow recommends the city drop the gifted and talented program from public schools. But the final decision will be up to Mayor de Blasio. Education reporter Jillian Jorgensen joins us now with more details. Jillian, I can already hear the arguing.

JILLIAN JORGENSEN: Yeah, you know, I mean, this is a real third rail in educational policy and in politics - right? - talking about gifted and talented programs.

FREEDMAN: Gifted and talented programs, also known as G&T, are a special track within elementary schools for kids who have demonstrated a particular kind of academic strength. When the SDAG published their report, there were only about 16,000 G&T seats across the city in a system of almost a million kids. But Jillian's right. G&T programs are a lightning rod in New York City politics.

GRIFFITH: But before we get to the politics of G&T, we want to talk about the actual program.

PLUCKER: The New York City Gifted Education Program - there are very few people who study the field seriously who think that that's a very good model. It's usually the exact opposite.

FREEDMAN: Jonathan Plucker is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he works in the School of Education and the Center for Talented Youth.

PLUCKER: We actually have traditionally pointed to the city's approach as something districts should not do.

FREEDMAN: He says there are a few problems with how New York City has historically done gifted education, starting with how students are admitted.

GRIFFITH: This is how it worked until very, very recently. Like the SHSAT, there was a test that was the sole measure of eligibility, of giftedness.

FREEDMAN: That test was opt-in, turning parents into de facto gatekeepers.

GRIFFITH: And most G&T programs begin in kindergarten. So you had to take the test in preschool.

PLUCKER: I would never screen students for sort of talent development programs probably before second grade. I would never do it as early as New York City has traditionally done it - 4 years old. I think at 4 years old, you're essentially testing the quality of their preschool education. And that's just not fair to most students. And I think the data in New York City reflect that.

GRIFFITH: Before 2008, each of New York City's 32 school districts could set its own standards for gifted and talented admissions. But under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it was centralized. Once the city moved to a single test and a single standard for measuring giftedness, suddenly, the number of Black and Latinx students who qualify for G&T plummeted. Since so few kids qualified in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, the G&T programs in those neighborhoods were closed.

FREEDMAN: Today, 70% of New York City public school students are Black or Latinx, but they only make up about 25% of the G&T population. Even in a school that's racially diverse, if they have a G&T program, that tends to make the school internally segregated. The G&T classes will have more white and Asian students than the rest of the school.

GRIFFITH: And while who gets into G&T programs is a separate issue from the specialized high schools, they are connected.

PLUCKER: If you're not helping students develop their academic abilities when they're little, and then you do much less of it when you get to middle school, and then you're surprised when you get to high school and you have students take this test to get in, and there are huge differences based on geography - and we know that based on geography, because of that residential segregation, it's also by race, income, language ability - this wasn't surprising. Like, the system in some ways was almost designed to produce these results - not on purpose, but that's what happened.

GRIFFITH: But there's a more fundamental problem. The way we think about giftedness and talent is totally outdated.

FREEDMAN: Even though Jonathan Plucker is the immediate past president of the National Association for Gifted Children, he hates that language. He prefers to talk about advanced learning.

PLUCKER: The term gifted ed - I mean, talk about an archaic term. I never use that term because I just - it immediately gets people's hackles up.

JACKSON: Gifted is saying, well, once we see a child manifesting something as a strength, that must be the whole trajectory for them. And we're saying no, there are so many other things that come into play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Yvette Jackson is a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She served as a director of gifted programs for New York City schools from 1983 to 1987.

JACKSON: The belief in the past was you were born with a particular intellectual capacity and it never changed. You had a fixed intelligence. That was the prevailing science. And then that got totally dismantled once more neuroscience came into the picture, as well as the understanding of cognitive development. The more experiences and experimenting came along, they said, wait a second. Intelligence is not fixed at all.

People say, well, well, it's just some kids are smarter and some kids just aren't. And that's not the way the brain is. We know we can amplify the intellectual development of all people. Now, there are studies that show that you can increase your intellectual capability until you die. Does that mean that I'm saying that some students don't exhibit, very early on, abilities? Absolutely not. Yes, they absolutely do. Now, the question, though, is, what do you do to keep those abilities growing? And what do you do, though, to then make sure that other children can develop and grow and start showing those abilities as well?

PLUCKER: Some students need more. And you could fill in the blank after more with almost anything, right? They need more opportunities to write because they're a very creative writer. They need more opportunities for advanced math because they love math and they have a real talent for it. Providing access to every student to those types of services is really important. It doesn't mean every single student is going to participate in those services, but they should have the opportunity to do so. They don't right now.

FREEDMAN: Jonathan Plucker says higher income students who don't get an extra challenge in school will probably be fine. They're more likely to get their education supplemented at home or in after-school programs or summer programs.

PLUCKER: It's a bigger problem for Black, Hispanic and low-income students. You can actually see their overall achievement levels decline compared to their peers if they're not being challenged.

GRIFFITH: So there are kids who need advanced services who aren't getting them. That's not in dispute. You might say, OK, just put G&T programs in more places. But Dr. Plucker says that's not the answer.

PLUCKER: So this idea of pulling the students out and putting them in special classrooms, special schools, I know where that comes from. But the research suggests that's probably not the best way to do it.

GRIFFITH: He says there's an almost unlimited number of better ways.

PLUCKER: No matter what we do, it has got to be flexible for these kids. If you have hard barriers around these programs, you're essentially, most of the time, saying kids are either talented or they're not. That's not how talent works. We know that now.

FREEDMAN: With so much research and knowledge out there, why are we stuck with this outdated and segregated model of advanced education?

JACKSON: Well, there's fear, right? Fear is we don't want our kids to have less than they're been getting right now, right? We want to make sure they get more, and I'm really sorry that those who aren't getting it, and it just so happens they happen to be more kids of color.

GRIFFITH: Sometimes it isn't even what your kid might actually get in G&T that matters most. I know from personal experience, that for many parents, the separation is the point. For a certain kind of New York City parent who assumes most public schools are mediocre, G&T has long served as an escape hatch. The thinking goes, you can send your kid to public school, but you won't have to deal with the public. Underlying this mindset is a pervasive culture of low expectations for most public school students. And it's not only parents who think this way.

PLUCKER: I cannot tell you how many inner-city principals I've heard say things like, yes, advanced learning is so important. Absolutely. Equity in these programs, so important. But I only have Black kids in my school, so I don't have any talented kids. I only have low-income Hispanic students. I don't have any talented kids. I don't have more than 5% of kids who speak English fluently. I don't have talented kids. As God as my witness, in the first two decades of the 21st century, I still hear stuff like that. And these are people who have made their career working in these schools to help these students. So I know they care about the students. They just don't have any background in advanced education. And just over time, the entire system has lowered our expectations for these kids, lower and lower and lower.

JACKSON: If you really believe they have potential, you will look for the kinds of strategies that are going to really elicit that potential and then move kids and give them the invitations to push on their own intelligence. But you've got to believe that that is possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: District 28 currently has Gifted and Talented Programs at four schools. Three of them are on the north side. The one on the south side is west of the Van Wyk Expressway, which means zero are in South Jamaica.

FREEDMAN: The District 28 diversity plan didn't say anything about G&T because, again, there was no actual plan. But the same school diversity advisory group that suggested the city rethink G&T also recommended starting local diversity planning processes, which is how District 28 ended up with diversity planning in the first place. So they were connected in people's minds, especially the minds of those who were already fired up from the fight over the SHSAT.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We felt under attack. We felt that we weren't consulted, that we weren't respected through this process. So I think those feelings carried over to the District 28 planning process that - and in the middle, the SDAG report came out. So they recommended not testing at 4 years old for the Gifted and Talented Program. So by the time the District 28 diversity plan came out, I feel that a lot of people in the Asian community felt that this was just another attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: After the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: Actually, I'm a really bad parent (laughter). I'm not a typical Asian parent. I do have many friends. They move - they particular move to my block because for a better chance, their kids can go to PS303. But I don't know anything about it.

GRIFFITH: Jing Wang, who you met earlier in this episode, lives in Forest Hills and has two kids in public school.

WANG: Most of my friends prepare their kids for specialized tests, for specialized tests sort of sending them to Gifted and Talented Program. I don't know why I am not doing that. Like, kind of a back of my head, I'm kind of against that. I don't want my kids starting those. Like, we grow up all about test, test, test. I just feel he's too young. He need more time to be free, to explore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: The first she heard about the District 28 diversity plan was from parents on WeChat.

WANG: They start sending out information. The organized parents go to rally.

GRIFFITH: Rally against it?

WANG: Against it, and that's the time I've heard about it. And then - but they're so angry about it, and I don't know what they're angry about.

GRIFFITH: She eventually understood part of what that anger was about.

WANG: I think the furious tone is, like, a - make people angry right way, 'cause they just, like, chop that to our neighborhood without any community research based on anything - just, like, we're going to do it. This is what we're going to do. Like, you like it now. That's it. So that's a tone, like, really make people angry about it, and the perception - oh, they think Asians are silenced. That will have a huge in the - early on, like, in the Chinese community. It's, like - you know, like, Asians call (non-English language spoken). It's also called (non-English language spoken). Like, we are very used to be silenced, and we are afraid to fight 'cause most of immigrant. Immigrant don't have voice. We don't have a right to vote. We cannot change anything. No one's going to hear us.

And many parents already prepared and learned a lot through participating with the special high school activist movement. I think a lot of Chinese parents directly react on that instead of seeing the whole outcome. They just want those, like, policies to be gone instead of think, like, why are they doing this? And there's no middle ground, and then there's definitely opinion leader or someone stirred up anger out of that community to saying, we don't want a diversity. Our community is diversity enough. We don't want anyone coming into the way. So that's another group of people - you know, they all have a different political agenda. So this mix...

GRIFFITH: (Inaudible).

WANG: Oh, I'm sure it has to. (Non-English language spoken), right?

ZANG: The SHSAT were the first (inaudible), so - I mean, before that I didn't know who was our governor. I didn't know who was our council member. So then in 2018, we were outraged by the mayor's plan to get rid of the SHSAT in our - I thought it wouldn't work, right? It won't solve problem. It makes it unfair. So I got involved on it from there. I became the parent leader and then...

FREEDMAN: After the SHSAT was saved, Donghui Zang stepped up his efforts to protect the interests of Chinese Americans throughout New York City.

ZANG: We created a nonprofit organization called the New York City Residents Alliance. So I'm the president. We want our students to get good education, and we want our neighborhood be safe. So that's the center of everything we are doing.

FREEDMAN: According to one report, Donghui is able to reach as many as 2,000 people at one time on WeChat.

GRIFFITH: Jing says that Donghui got a lot of support in Forest Hills because he stepped into a perceived void in the neighborhood.

WANG: Especially for the Asian community, we think we are never being represented 'cause there is no Asian community leader. So somehow through the movement, Donghui rise to be a community leader.

ZANG: I have been fighting for the SHSAT, fighting for the G&T because, you know, a lot of families, they do want that program, and, you know, fighting to get the parents' voices heard during the diversity planning process.

FREEDMAN: Donghui told me that his organization, the New York Residents Alliance, circulated information about the diversity plan in Chinese. They held seminars at the Forest Hills Library in PS 144. They sent out questionnaires to collect ideas about diversity in the district, which they presented to local elected officials. I pointed out to him that all of this sounds exactly like what the DOE and its consultants said they were going to do as part of the official diversity planning process, which he opposed. He said the DOE was the problem.

ZANG: Every time we asked them on CEC meetings, yes, there was plan. There was no plan. They said yes, but they couldn't deny what (inaudible) had been published. So they couldn't really deny that. So I mean, there - yes, there must be a plan. So that was their plan. So - and I was so proud of - that our parents in District 28 from Jamaica to Forest Hill to Kew Gardens, and we all united together, and we exposed their plan. We exposed their intransparency, and we've made them to rethink about - to consider our community's worth. We made them fail to implement their agenda.

FREEDMAN: OK. I just have to say this. He did not make anyone fail to implement their agenda. Donghui did not stop the diversity planning process; COVID did.

GRIFFITH: Unlike Donghui, Stella Xu says she supported the diversity planning process. In fact, she was a member of the diversity working group.

XU: Everybody says that the schools in Forest Hill are very diverse - very diverse. And it's true to the extent that you see a lot of people who look different. But there's maybe three or four Black families in our schools. We were basically saying the school's not all white, so we're diverse. And I'm like, well, that's not really true when you look at the district as a whole.

GRIFFITH: And unlike some other parents on the north side, she believes something should be done about it.

XU: I think the perfect diversity - and I don't know how to achieve it - but I think we should focus on breaking up concentrations - pockets of social power, social capital. You know, and the more I got into the diversity planning process, the more evident it became. So we went to 144. It's a couple blocks from here. We just got a beautiful new extension built.

FREEDMAN: One year, there were so many applicants to PS 144 that they had to have a waitlist, meaning that not every kid who was zoned for that school got a seat.

XU: The parents went in an uproar. That summer, we had two trailers put in to our school yard, and the next year, we had a school built. I was like, wow, that's really fast.

FREEDMAN: Meanwhile, on the south side, Stella heard about a school that couldn't even get lights for their auditorium. To her, this was a shockingly clear demonstration of just how unequal the district really was.

GRIFFITH: Your family's obviously been the beneficiaries of whatever imbalance you think is there. Why would you want to change that?

XU: So I think I've been the beneficiary now, but I wasn't when I first moved here. So when I first moved here, you know, my father delivered Chinese food. My mother was a seamstress in a garment factory. And we didn't have a lot of money. And I would have loved the opportunity to have some of the things that my son has now. Like, he had his artwork hung in the Guggenheim, you know, when he took ballroom dancing. Like, when would I have ever gotten the opportunity to do that? So I think about the imbalances in the system and how - you know, how every child should have these opportunities and have it not just be concentrated in these schools.

GRIFFITH: As a member of the working group, she tried to be a sort of ambassador, talk to people in her community about the value of diversity and dispel some of the myths and misinformation about the plan. She heard a lot of resistance from other Chinese people, especially more recent immigrants. And she even felt some resistance within herself, particularly when it came to the subject of testing for G&T.

XU: And I think it was challenging for me personally, as well, because it was also very hard for me let go of saying that, you know, testing isn't everything. And I think I would feel differently if I was born here and raised here. But I spent the first 10 years of my life believing in this. I - part of me still believes in it. So I think those discussions were very challenging, to say, you know, you need to look at education holistically. Sure, in China, you were always tested. But in China, you are in a homogeneous society. There was no need for you to get along with other people because everybody was Chinese. So, you know, framing that was challenging. I think after the pandemic, it got more difficult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It is all happening too often, and it's not letting up - Asian New Yorkers attacked on the sidewalk, on the subway, while simply eating lunch.

PLUCKER: The Asian American community has been faced with effectively two pandemics. The first is the COVID-19 pandemic but the second pandemic that we have faced is also a virus. It's a virus of racism that we have faced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: These are highly divisive times, when Asian Americans are being targeted from coronavirus-related hate, discrimination and violence, as we've reported in recent months.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: And when the Black Lives Matter movement has been reignited as Black people continue to die at the hands of police officers at disproportionate rates, the anger and frustration between the Black and Asian communities can't be ignored.

FREEDMAN: That tension was felt in Forest Hills. Donghui continued to rally his followers, now in support of the police.

ZANG: I call for all my New York City fellow citizens to stand up, to say no to the crimes.

(CROSSTALK)

ZANG: I call for all citizens to support NYPD.

FREEDMAN: Jing Wang says there were Chinese students in the neighborhood who supported Black Lives Matter, and there were Chinese parents on WeChat attacking those kids' parents, saying, basically, you didn't raise them right. She was horrified.

WANG: That's really heartbroken for me. Like, I can - it's a - how dare you (laughter) to be a dictator for your kids, for the other people. Yeah. They came to this country for democracy, for freedom. But then they become dictator to other people's freedom and democracy. That's awful. They only care about their children. They only care about the Chinese. They never think what they will have done to other kids. And they don't care about, like, there are other groups in our neighborhood. They don't have respect to many groups. Yeah, that's - make me angry about it.

GRIFFITH: Even though the diversity plan was on pause indefinitely, Stella kept on trying to talk to her community about the underlying issues.

XU: Talking to Asian communities about U.S. history. You know, if you are recent - I mean, I have a BA in government, so I know about U.S. history, but a recent immigrant don't. And, you know, things they - you know, the concern was, well, Brown v. Board of Education said that there is no longer segregation, so, you know, segregation isn't really a problem. And I would explain, well, before Brown, there was Plessy and - which said...

GRIFFITH: She tried to explain the history of institutional racism in housing and schools and policing.

XU: I would spend a lot of my time discussing those issues with members of my community. And then we would - I would go back to, you know, my progressive circles, people who would be supportive of diversity, and they would say, well, you know, Asians are basically like white people, so, you know, we don't really have to take into account their considerations.

GRIFFITH: Yeah, I've heard this kind of thing before, too, that Asians are more like white people. It's an idea that's sometimes called white adjacency. It's problematic, to say the least, but it's common enough that it bears some explanation. At the most crude and basic level, it starts with the view that the further you get away from being Black and dark-skinned, the more access to privilege and wealth you're generally afforded. So if you're East Asian, for instance, you ain't white, but you're the next best thing.

FREEDMAN: And the way journalists and advocates often talk about advanced learning and school segregation reinforces this idea. It's usually white and Asian on one side, Black and Hispanic on the other. You could say those are just the facts. White and Asian kids are more likely to get into G&T and specialized high schools. But if white adjacency is literally about skin color, a lot of Asian people aren't lighter-skinned. If white adjacency is about class privilege, a lot of Asian people aren't wealthy. Nationally, Asians have the highest income disparity of any racial group. Immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan are among the poorest in New York City.

GRIFFITH: Of course, there is a racial hierarchy in this country. There is colorism. But the way some people talk about Asians and white adjacency can get ugly.

XU: One of the comments I heard offhand was, well, the Asians just want to bow down to the white overlords. I've heard that.

GRIFFITH: Needless to say, Stella doesn't care for this narrative too much.

XU: I think that's, like, a very ethnocentric view to say that because Asians have these cultural values that it must be because they're just trying to assimilate to whiteness. Like, we believed in meritocracy for 3,000 years, you know? Like, we've always done testing. You know, our college entrance exam, like, kids - like, the kids and their families camp out for, like, days in front of the school to take it. They study for, like, hours on end. And then we come here, and they're like, well, you're just trying to be white. And I'm like, no, this is what we've always believed. And you may not agree with it, but we're not trying to be white, either. And I think that's a very ethnocentric view to take, to say that, you know, you're white adjacent, or you're just subscribing to white values. Well, no, these were our values first (laughter).

We've always believed in education. And rightly or wrongly, education in East Asian cultures means a way out of your social station. And this is what our cultural identity is centered around. And I want to be heard when I express my views to progressive circles. I don't want to hear that I'm just saying white values. I don't want to hear that I'm just being white. I want to hear, you know, that's an Asian point of view, and here's my counterpoint. I don't want to be dismissed. I don't want to be marginalized. And I don't want to be made invisible.

GRIFFITH: There's a lot to unpack there. As in other episodes, it brings us to another awkward conversation about culture.

FREEDMAN: First, I want to explain a little of what Stella is talking about. The word meritocracy wasn't actually coined until the 1950s, but China does have a tradition of high-stakes civil service exams going as far back as the seventh century - many, many, many years before IQ tests or the SAT. That being said, testing and education are not the same thing, and I think it's a slippery slope from the idea that education is a particularly Asian cultural value to reinforcing the stereotype that education is not valued by others. I don't think that's what Stella meant, but this sort of cultural essentialism plays into the old and tired but seemingly unkillable model minority trope, which holds that Asians find more success in this country than Black people because they are naturally inclined towards education and hard work.

GRIFFITH: This idea flattens Asian identity and experience just as much as white adjacency does. While Asians overall may occupy a disproportionate number of seats in elite public schools, there are simply not enough of those seats for most Asian students to benefit. And even if there were more seats, there are plenty of Asian kids with gifts that may not be captured by a test.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Since the vast majority of Asian students don't get into G&T programs at specialized high schools, why are so many Asian families ready to fight so hard for these schools and these tests?

GRIFFITH: Some progressive Asian advocates argue that it's actually a small minority of economically privileged Asian parents like Donghui who are out in front of this, and they're using poor families to protect their own class interests.

FREEDMAN: But Jay Caspian Kang, who has interviewed a lot of these parents in the course of his reporting, says that clinging to test-based admissions is a rational response to economic precarity and cultural invisibility.

KANG: If you think about it from the - I went through some of this, too. It's just like, you know, your parents are immigrants in the United States. They don't speak very good English. They don't understand things that a lot of parents who have lived in the United States understand.

FREEDMAN: The thing is, in many ways, we don't live in a meritocracy. Wealth and power in this country are still passed down through elite institutions and social networks.

KANG: And so, like, if you look at it from that perspective, where these people are actually quite disadvantaged in terms of the way that America actually works - right? - like, in the way that privilege actually works, the way that access into wealth and the upper-middle class actually work, then the only thing that they can think to do is to do well on these tests and go to these schools. It's the only pathway that they know. And so when they feel that somebody is taking that away from them, you know, like, they're going to react in the way that they have.

I have a hard time telling those parents that they're wrong, right? Like, I could tell them that we should think of a different type of society where educational access (laughter) doesn't mean so much, you know? We should redistribute wealth, etc., etc., etc. (laughter), you know, all the things that I believe politically. But, man, it's a tough sell, you know? They're just like, you know, fuck you. You know, we're - you're, like - you're very privileged, and I'm washing dishes. I don't want my kid to wash dishes. And this is the only way out. Tell me another way out. I have no answer for them. I find it very hard to, like, tell them they're wrong - right? - because we do live in a country where all this sort of opportunity is rationed out in such a scarce way.

SUTTON: I completely understand the idea that there is something that you've been told your whole life is bright and shiny and is going to get you to where you need to go.

GRIFFITH: Parent leader Tajh Sutton.

SUTTON: And I understand the resentment about not having access to that. But I work within a framework of community. So when I'm thinking about education, I'm not only thinking about myself, I'm not only thinking about my family. I'm thinking about other people's kids, too. I'm thinking about other people's families, too. And when we think about education, it's not about, OK, I'm going to get my kid into the school, and they're going to graduate, and then I never have to think about it again, because that's why we are where we are now. That's why we're also fighting for crumbs. It's really important that we think about education as a public good and, like, move accordingly. And that is going to require us to not be the individualistic, opportunistic folks that the public education system and the DOE and the city and this state and country - right? - have taught us to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Those who want to change the way New York City does advanced education are asking parents to do some really hard things; consider kids other than your own and imagine a totally new system.

FREEDMAN: But the de Blasio administration, despite their big talk about equity and excellence, dragged their feet for years on this. They failed to put forward a positive vision for what advanced learning should look like in the city until it was already too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: An expansion today of an important program of New York City public schools, a program that came this close under Mayor de Blasio of getting dismantled, the so-called gifted and talented program - perhaps an unfortunate name for a valuable program. The new mayor, Eric Adams, campaigning to keep the program and now expanding it to help more kids get challenged and improve in school.

FREEDMAN: Instead of the old G&T exam, there's a new process that is more universal, but also more subjective and more random. Preschool teachers are supposed to screen all their students and recommend the brightest to be entered into a lottery, which looks to a lot of people on different sides of this issue like a recipe for bias.

GRIFFITH: But the DOE is also adding seats in historically underserved neighborhoods. So this fall, there will be a new G&T program in District 28, specifically at a school in South Jamaica, which is great for those 30 kids who get into that first class. What about everybody else?

FREEDMAN: Even with the expansion, they're only adding 1,000 new seats citywide. So G&T still only affects a fraction of students in New York City public schools. And yet all of this hand-wringing over G&T takes up so much oxygen in the city's politics and did so even at the height of the pandemic. That left a lot of parents feeling left out and left behind.

LORI PODVESKER: Hundreds of thousands of kids and families like mine really - everybody's struggling - really struggling. And yet we're paying attention to, like, 20,000 kids so they can lead more productive lives when my kid can't even have access to basic services?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Lori Podvesker is the parent of a student with disabilities. She's also the policy director for INCLUDEnyc, a nonprofit that provides support for young people with disabilities and their families.

PODVESKER: Right now based on the latest data, we've got close to 300,000 students, ages 3 through 21, who receive special education services.

GRIFFITH: Or at least they're supposed to. But it's no secret how hard it is to actually get those services, even for Lori.

PODVESKER: I live, shit, eat and breathe this stuff. If it's this hard for me, what's it like for the majority of other people?

GRIFFITH: The city admits that at least 25% of students with disabilities did not receive any or all of their legally mandated services in the last year. And many of them are really struggling.

PODVESKER: We have proficiency rates in standardized tests - math and English - from grades three through eight at about 15 and 17%. So that means less than 2 out of every 10 kids who receive services are proficient in math and English. These numbers, in my opinion, are atrocious, but yet they are the best they've ever been.

GRIFFITH: So for Lori, it's really galling when diversity comes up, and students with disabilities are not a part of the conversation.

PODVESKER: None of the citywide initiatives on diversity included kids like mine in District 75 schools.

FREEDMAN: Lori's son, Jack, has cerebral palsy, he's on the autism spectrum, and he's mostly nonverbal. Jack is one of about 26,000 kids who attend a program in what's called District 75. D75 serves students whom the city and state have deemed severely disabled, too disabled to go to school with general education students.

PODVESKER: Most people don't even know about District 75 because the majority of these programs are housed on the top floor of co-located buildings or in the basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PODVESKER: To some extent, they're invisible. There are no mechanisms in place that measure the extent that kids with disabilities are integrated or spend time with general education students. And so it just perpetuates kids with disabilities not being seen or valued. They use a separate door from the rest of the kids in the building. And if my guy could use the front door and is walking into a building at the same time as somebody who's not disabled and has to learn to, like, pause to let them go first or has to learn that it has to be quiet before he could speak, those are skills that are going to help him be independent and possibly even employed when he is out. And not having access to that - that's more than diversity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: We could make an entire season or two just about special education in this city. We certainly didn't want to have an entire episode on G&T programs without at least acknowledging how many more students there are who don't get the same kind of attention in their schools or in our politics. Attention is a scarce resource. We pay attention to the people we value, and we don't value most people. Deep down, everybody knows that. That's why we fight so hard for attention, as we've seen over and over again this season.

GRIFFITH: It's been three years since District 28 was first awarded the Diversity Planning Grant. No diversity plan was ever created. But the fighting for attention hasn't stopped.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: That's next time on the final episode of School Colors Season 2.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You, who are trying to stop the diversity, come help. It's your fucking district. This is the way New York City works. We all a team, honey, or move somewhere else. The way it works is you're a part of District 28 now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You keep institutionalized racism up and going. You are what you shouldn't be. Right now, we have a chance to change things.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Are we ever going to, as a society, get to a place where we're not like, let's just do this first, but then we'll get to equity, racial justice, integration? The deep anger that I hear from people about what has happened to schools and with schools over the past two years - it's not going to be a pretty picture in November.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Open up. Open up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson. Additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna. Fact-checking by Carly Rubin. Engineering by James Willetts. Additional research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original music by Avery R. Young and De Deacon Board. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

FREEDMAN: Special thanks to Naomi Chu (ph), Kathy Deng (ph), Amy Shin (ph), Vivian Louie, Allison Roda, Kevari Sengupta and Sophie Shu (ph).

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

GRIFFITH: Have you heard something on this show that's really moved you or changed the way you see these issues in your own life? Leave us a voicemail at 929-483-6387.

FREEDMAN: Until next time.

GRIFFITH: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: I am schvitzing (ph).

GRIFFITH: What's schmitzing (ph)? Sorry. I should know that.

FREEDMAN: Schvitz (ph), schvitzing - I'm schvitzing, sweating. Yeah.

GRIFFITH: Oh, OK. Thank you.

FREEDMAN: Yeah. With a V, not an M.

GRIFFITH: Gotcha. Schvitzing.

FREEDMAN: Yeah.

GRIFFITH: I'm schvitzing like a dog out here. OK. I got to remember that.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.