To reach minorities, schools rethink how to calculate 'gifted'


Maybe Elijah McCain would have realized one day that success in school is more important than his classmates' acceptance, or maybe the 9-year-old would have kept sloughing off schoolwork to please his friends, never reaching his potential.

Then the boy from Essex would have been another sad story of academic underachievement, another sorry example of an African-American child who fell through the cracks and wasn't given the prodding he needed to excel.

That's not Elijah's tale, though.

Placed in a gifted program at his Baltimore County school last fall, the fourth-grader soared. Now, he's at the top of his class and talking about how far he has come and how much further he would like to go.

School districts and nonprofit groups from California to Georgia - including some in Maryland - are taking steps to address the under-representation of minority children like Elijah in gifted programs.

They are trying to correct biases in the ways children are determined to be gifted, and they are trying to make sure precocious pupils from poor families don't lose out on gifted programs simply because their parents don't know about them.

The moves are taking place amid a spirited national debate about how best to get them involved, but everyone agrees that improvement is needed.

"Because you're poor does not mean you're not gifted," said Christine M. Johns, deputy superintendent of Baltimore County schools, who has spearheaded a pilot program that identified Elijah and then gave him enriched instruction that has enabled him to thrive.

The pilot program expanded the list of factors used to identify children as gifted beyond standardized test scores, and it deployed "gifted and talented resource teachers" to 20 schools in low-income neighborhoods to help find these children.

There are a lot of Elijahs in public schools. Nationally, blacks and Hispanics are less than half as likely as their white classmates to be enrolled in gifted programs, according to a report last year by the National Research Council, a Washington nonprofit group that advises the federal government.

But new programs to reverse minority students' traditionally lagging performance in school can change that, experts said. The goal, they said, is to place more minority children on a path of rigorous class work that will steer them into college and successful careers.

"If these things are well done, [the children] quickly escalate to very high levels - you see kids showing up in state science fair contests and Web design competitions," said Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, in Storrs, Conn.

Help for gifted students was originally nothing more than a 19th-century St. Louis school superintendent's attempt to ward off laziness. Eventually, however, it evolved into formal programs, with separate classes and lessons for those identified as gifted.

Programs proliferate

The programs have proliferated over the past few decades, with even whole schools being established to serve the brightest, most talented children.

But minorities have been disproportionately left out because of shortcomings in IQ tests used to measure their abilities, researchers have found. What constituted gifted was limited to excellence in reading, science and math, excluding talents in the arts and leadership.

"One would think that people who want to work with gifted children would be a little more gifted about identifying them," said Gary Orfield, an education professor who is the director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

Making matters worse, minority students were more likely to hide their talents for fear of taunts that they were "selling out" or "acting white."

And while affluent parents tended to lobby for their children's placement in gifted programs, even the best-intentioned low-income parents were often unaware that such programs even existed.

In response, educators have added more ways to measure the talents of students.

In Georgia, for example, educators now include a child's creativity and motivation among the factors in deciding who is gifted. In Charlotte, N.C., trained observers have been hired to watch students tackle assignments.

Gifted education for all

While the efforts have raised the number of minorities in gifted programs, they haven't eliminated criticism that children still get overlooked.

"Especially in districts that are changing [racially], the gifted track becomes the white track," said Mindy L. Kornhaber, a Penn State professor who has written about the issue.

Kornhaber argues that the best way to ensure that minority students aren't wrongly left out of gifted programs is to "give everybody the gifted education."

That's an approach being pushed by California, which has recommended that school systems teach algebra by eighth grade, when it has traditionally been taught to advanced pupils only.

One of the leading purveyors of this philosophy is the Algebra Project, a 21-year-old program founded by Robert P. Moses, a longtime civil rights activist. Now under its auspices, schools in 13 states, including the Stadium School in Baltimore, teach algebra to all their eighth-graders.

"I shouldn't say it's the opposite of a gifted and talented program, but [Moses] has always thought it important to develop a curriculum and implement it, so the Algebra Project establishes a floor of math literacy," said Benjamin Moynihan, the project's coordinator of national initiatives.

In Maryland, the state Department of Education, which pays for summer programs for gifted students, encourages these programs to enroll children who are traditionally under-represented and give them scholarships.

In addition, some Baltimore area school systems are altering their gifted and talented programs.

Anne Arundel County school officials are revamping the gifted curriculum and stressing the identification of traditionally underserved students. Howard County school officials are shifting teachers of gifted students to lower-performing schools, which tend to be in poorer neighborhoods.

Baltimore County's school system started its pilot program this school year, after a consultant reported that minorities "continue to be underrepresented in the district's gifted programs" despite years of initiatives.

This school year, only 8 percent of the school system's 17,103 gifted students are African-American, far fewer than the 34 percent share of black students in the district as a whole.

But officials are optimistic that the new pilot program, which they hope to expand to more schools next year, will help correct the under-representation.

Expanding awareness

Parents such as Samy Samy, an Egyptian immigrant whose daughter, Sarah Farid, 8, joined Deep Creek Elementary School's gifted program last fall, said he would never have known about the accelerated class work were it not for the pilot program.

Deep Creek, in Essex, is among the 20 Baltimore County schools participating in the pilot program to identify more gifted minority children. This year, it has 28 minority children in its gifted program, including Sarah - almost double last year's total.

Since she started in the fall, Sarah's math has improved, she shows more confidence and she talks about becoming a teacher or scientist, her father said.

At Mars Estates, where Elijah goes to school, 34 pupils, including 19 minority children, are in the gifted program - four more minority pupils than last year. Cheryl Bost, one of Elijah's fourth-grade teachers, said Elijah didn't push himself last school year in his school work because of peer pressure. While urging her son to do well in school, Elijah's mother didn't know she could lobby for his inclusion in the gifted program.

So Elijah wasn't identified as talented until this fall, when Stephen Bender, the school's new gifted resource teacher, noticed his high test scores, persistence with school work and thoughtful answers to questions about current events.

Elijah said he's proud of what he can do and wants to continue taking advanced classes in middle and high schools.

"Last year was hard for me to spell and read," he said. "Last year, I couldn't do the things I do now."

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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