Gifted and Talented programs given new life under revamped plan

By Matthew Fischetti and Evan Triantafilidis

Education Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams announced an expansion of the Gifted and Talented programs to every school district in the city.

The program, which starts at the Kindergarten level with an opt-in citywide test, will have 100 seats added to the existing 2,400 enrollment slots.

The admissions tests administered annually to thousands of rising Kindergarteners will be replaced with a student evaluation and eventual nomination by their pre-K teachers to a lottery system, or through an interview process if they are not yet in school, or attend a private or parochial school program.

The Adams administration says this universal pre-K screening takes the initial burden off families and will increase access to the program, resulting in a more diverse eligibility pool.

At the third-grade level, 1,000 seats will be added to the program.

Although it is not clear yet which schools in Brooklyn and Queens will be receiving the additional seats, the revival of the Gifted and Talented program was met with mixed reactions from elected officials. The Department of Education did not identify which districts will receive additional seats, despite multiple requests for clarification.

With just weeks left in his tenure, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last October plans to phase out the Gifted and Talented program. De Blasio planned to replace the program with “Brilliant NYC,” which would allow students eight and older to participate in accelerated learning programs while remaining in their original classroom.
De Blasio envisioned a program that was touted to reach 26 times more students than the current Gifted and Talented program, and offer a more widespread approach to attain a more inclusive model.

Critics of the Gifted and Talented program argue that the diversity of the program does not reflect the student body population. While Black and Latino kids make up the majority of city students – at approximately 65 percent – the Gifted and Talented programs enroll more than 75 percent of students who are either white or Asian.

The Adams administration says the expansion of the program is the result of the Department of Education’s engagement with and feedback from parents and diverse community stakeholders.

“We’re doubling down on this administration’s commitment to our youngest New Yorkers by adding additional seats and removing inequities in the admission process to allow students throughout this city to gain access to accelerated learning,” Mayor Adams said. “And thanks to this expansion, for the first time ever, there will be a Gifted and Talented program in every school district in this city. This is how we give every young person an opportunity to grow, to learn, to explore their talents and imagination.”

Elected officials along with education advocates voiced their approval of the new Mayor’s plan, while others claim that the move simply expands an already inequitable initiative.

Councilwoman Linda Lee, representing the 23rd District in Eastern Queens, has been advocating for the expansion of the Gifted and Talented program since before she was elected. With her youngest son eligible to test-in next year, Lee applauded last week’s announcement from the Mayor and Schools Chancellor.

“Since the fall, parents, community leaders, and elected officials have consistently called for G&T to be restored, and today the Mayor and Chancellor demonstrated that they are listening,” Lee said. “By not just expanding the number of seats available citywide, but also expanding programs to every school district in the City, and allowing students to test into the program at later ages, this new program will prove that we can have equity and educational excellence at the same time.”

A number of Lee’s colleagues in the City Council, including Speaker Adrienne Adams, Sandra Ung, Lynn Schulman, Rita Joseph, Justin Brannan, Gale Brewer and Oswald Feliz have all praised the move to expand the Gifted and Talented program citywide.

New York State Senator John Liu, chair of the committee on NYC Education, said that he is happy to see “positive movement” on accelerated learning in public schools, but remains cautious to the lottery system and “nebulous recommendations” that are a cause for concern for parents and families.

“Going forward beyond this school year, the administration must be sure to engage parents and students who have long called for more accelerated learning in order to address these outstanding issues,” Liu said.

Critics of the program, like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Comptroller Brad Lander, say that the revival and revamp of the Gifted and Talented program does not do away with the underlying tones of modern day segregation in the classroom.

Lander said that Elementary school students benefit from learning alongside a diverse group of peers, calling it one of the core virtues of public education.

“Segregating learning environments for elementary students, based on a teacher’s or test’s assessment of how smart they are, is not sound education policy,” Lander said in a statement. “We’ve seen repeatedly that stand-alone G&T programs lead to racial segregation.”

Other leftists like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have released white papers criticizing the program and instead advocating for a “school enrichment model.”

The model would utilize “a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences for all students, and use student responses to these experiences as stepping stones for relevant follow-up,” according to Williams’ report.

“Adding more seats, more access, more opportunity is an improvement that will extend these benefits to more students. At the same time, it is also an expansion of a program that is inherently inequitable,” Williams said in a statement.

Longtime FSSA dance teachers to retire

Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts reflect on their teaching journeys

Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts first got acquainted in the early 2000s as they sat in the waiting room to be interviewed for the same teaching position at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.

Little did they know they would retire at the same time and spend over two decades together, teaching high school students the art form so close to their hearts: dance.
Udovicki, known lovingly by her students as “Ms. U,” is the daughter of Yugoslavian and Bolivian parents.

She trained as a ballet dancer while she lived in Europe, and eventually moved to New York City in her early 20s to pursue her dance career.
“My husband is an artist, so he was interested in coming here for the arts. I discovered modern dance when I came to the U.S., but you needed modern dance training to do it,” Udovicki said.

“I questioned where I should go to study modern dance and many said Julliard. I went to Julliard because there you get the sequential training, and out of there I could then join companies in modern dance, which I did until I was pregnant.”

Udovicki has danced professionally for numerous companies, including Belgrade National Theater, The Royal Flemish Ballet, Ballet Hispanico and The New York Baroque Dance Company. She has also worked with modern dance choreographers Ohad Naharin and Neta Pulvermacher.

Heuts said his story is quite similar to Udovicki’s, as he also hails from Europe—the Netherlands, to be exact—but it wasn’t until later in life that he began to pursue dance.

“I actually have a degree in art history from before I switched over to dance. I went to a dance conservatory in Amsterdam, where I studied modern dance,” Heuts said.
“I came to New York and right away got different jobs with modern dance companies, most notably Battery Dance in Lower Manhattan,” he continued. “But those jobs don’t pay full fare, so I did different side gigs to make ends meet.”

Heuts has studied with modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, whom he described as his idol.

He also has years of experience as a Pilates instructor and fitness trainer, and is well known for his healthy lifestyle. Every single day he walks to his work in Long Island City from his home in Manhattan over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

Tommy Tibball, a 2009 graduate of Frank Sinatra and co-director of TKO Dance Academy in Ozone Park, said that Heuts hasn’t changed a bit since he attended school.

“I’m teaching the freshmen a dance right now for the Spring Dance Concert, and I was running late. I told Mr. Heuts that I was sorry and parking was impossible. And he said in the same dry sense of humor, ‘Well, you should walk. I do it every day, and perfect attendance to add to that,’” Tibball said. “I remember always saying that I wish I could be like him when I’m older, because he literally must be in perfect health. The man hasn’t been sick in like six years.”

Heuts said that even if students don’t remember his barre exercises or across the floor combinations, he’s grateful that they remember him for who he is as a teacher and person.

“As I got older and taught for more years, I realized that it’s more important what I say and do in terms of my personality, rather than the actual things that I taught,” Heuts said. “They probably remember my walking over the bridge, being a vegetarian or making stupid jokes and things like that.”

Udovicki said that the most rewarding part of being a high school dance teacher is not so much what happens day in and day out, but what comes later.
“It’s so endearing to hear from the graduates who write back and come to visit. The things they say reaffirm me and the values I teach,” she said.

“Their pliés and contractions don’t really matter anymore, but the fact that they say they’ve learned so much about life, does,” she said. “I give these speeches sometimes, and they thank me for all that they’ve learned and my role as a teacher.”

Olivia Kenny, a 2019 graduate, had Udovicki as a dance teacher for three of the four years she attended Frank Sinatra, and said her class’ experience was unique because of her motivational words.

“Ms. U was our actual mom at that point because we saw her so much, and it was so good to end it with her as a senior. She would always give her little speeches, talk about history and really educate us in a different way,” Kenny said. “I feel like people at the college level are learning exactly what we learned at 14 and 15-years-old, and it was so amazing to learn from someone so experienced.”

Both teachers said they will forever cherish the feeling of being in the wings during special performances, such as the Spring Dance Concert or the Senior Show.
Udovicki and Heuts have arranged for numerous guest choreographers to come and stage their work on Frank Sinatra students, as well as facilitated performances at the Metropolitan Opera House through American Ballet Theatre.

Although they’re unsure of who will replace them when the school year comes to an end, they believe the school’s administration will seek feedback from them, given their longtime roles.

As for after retirement plans, they will both be quite busy.

“I want to continue teaching, but in other venues,” Udovicki said. “I’d like to teach dance for people with Parkinson’s, and maybe for people in jails. I’d also like to go back and volunteer at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts like I used to do.”

She also plans to spend more time with her family in Serbia, which used to be Yugoslavia.

Heuts and his wife plan to move out of New York City to a nearby suburb.

“If it were just me, I could probably go a few more years teaching, but my wife and I are a team,” he said.

“I feel somewhat happy that at least this was a pretty normal year; it’s a much better ending than what last year would have been.”

Udovicki said she feels privileged to have been able to indulge in the journey of self-discovery that comes with teaching adolescents.

“What I always loved was the art, that it’s a different language and a way of expressing yourself. It is really another way of communicating and making this world better,” she said.

“Politics is all an illusion, and so is dance, but it’s a beautiful thing that can enrich lives… what comes out of it is real.”

Vaccine clinic at Maspeth High School

Almost 80 percent of students fully vaccinated

By Evan Triantafilidis

Maspeth High School held an all-day COVID-19 clinic, offering vaccines, boosters, and both rapid and PCR tests for students and community members.

The mobile vaccine van, operated by the New York City Department of Health, was parked outside the school last Thursday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with students voluntarily lining up after school to receive their first, second, or booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

Recently released data from the health department shows that 82.5 percent of students at Maspeth High have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 78 percent are considered fully vaccinated.

The school reported only six cases of COVID-19 during the month of February, which is a 97 percent reduction in cases compared to January.

Justin Spiro, a social worker at Maspeth High, said that the vaccine clinic was an opportunity to increase accessibility to the free shots.

“It’s not just about servicing the school, but the community as well,” Spiro said.

For Jakub Sulinski, a senior at Maspeth High, nearly half of his high school experience has been during the pandemic. He says that his school has done an adequate job of providing students with resources, even when remote learning was the only option.

“A lot of people didn’t like Zoom and stuff like that, but I feel like people would have gone mad if it wasn’t for it,” Sulinski said. “The socializing keeps us sane.”

He said that the cancellation of the Regents exam in January added to the craziness of his last year of high school.

“Two years just disappeared,” Spiro said. “But we have to do what we have to do to help society as a whole.”

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