Minorities, poor get "highly gifted" lift
A new DPS system awards some kids an extra boost to make things more equitable.
By Jeremy P. Meyer The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 03/04/2008 06:34:50 AM MST
Polaris at Ebert second-graders Guinness Vanos, left foreground, and Jlynn Terroade, both 8 years old, join other students in learning dance techniques during a physical-education class. ( Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post )More minority and poor students in Denver are being classified as highly gifted under a new system that gives extra credit to children who are economically disadvantaged or nonnative English speakers.
Denver Public Schools is trying to fix a disparity in the program that serves its smartest and most talented students — which up until now has drawn mostly white students in a district that is mostly Latino.
"It's a much more holistic look at the kid," said Diana Howard, principal at Polaris at Ebert, the district's sole elementary school for the highly gifted and talented. "I wanted this system to look at much more than test scores. This is going to have a huge impact."
More than 1,800 students in Denver Public Schools — about 3 percent — fit the highly gifted classification and are served by magnet programs at seven elementary schools and one middle school.
Denver is the only district in the metro area that has a program specifically for "highly gifted and talented students."
To determine who gets into the program, the district previously relied on oral tests that measure a student's reasoning and IQ.
But some educators and social scientists believe those tests are biased against students learning English and poorer students who may not have had the same life experiences as their richer peers.
"They may be bright children but may not know what plaid is," Howard said. "Or their concept may not have involved a vacation. Or they may have never been on an escalator."
To make things more equitable, the district now relies on a sum of measures to determine eligibility into the highly gifted program — cognitive tests, annual assessments, reading tests and teacher nominations. Next year, the district will consider artwork and writings.
Also, students get extra points toward entry into the program if English is their second language or if they receive federal meal benefits — a measure of poverty.
For example, a student who scores as low as the 75th percentile on cognitive tests could be considered, Howard said. Previously, that child would not have been admitted.
"We want to find the gifts that these children have, not exclude them," she said.
Experts in the gifted field say DPS's change follows a national trend.
"Standardized tests are tipped against children from underserved populations and children from diverse backgrounds," said Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children. "We have got to find other ways besides verbal tests to determine whether kids are gifted."
The American Civil Liberties Union in California last year threatened to sue the Tustin Unified School District over low numbers of Latinos and African-Americans in the district's gifted programs.
Districts from Miami to New York are giving more credit to smart children from culturally diverse or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, said Joshua Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
"If what we are trying to do is measure not accomplishment but giftedness and talent, then putting your thumb on the scale or adding points for kids from low-income backgrounds re-equalizes things," he said. "The question is how heavy should that thumb be?"
Wyner said weighting the system carries political risks.
"If there are a limited number of slots in those programs, then the wealthier student who is excluded will always feel wrongly excluded if their test scores were higher than a lower-income student or Hispanic student who was included," he said.
Jaime Aquino, DPS's chief academic officer, said adding more highly gifted students will not exclude others.
"Every school gets an allocation per student who is identified as gifted and talented, so they can provide them some enrichment or some differentiated services within the building," he said. "You have several magnet programs throughout the district. Many still have room. It's just whether the parents want to send their kids to those schools."
More students are applying
DPS's student population is 57 percent Latino, 20 percent white and 19 percent black. But the highly gifted and talented program serves only 25 percent ethnic minorities, Howard said.
After this year's screening, a third of the newly identified highly gifted students are ethnic minorities, Howard said.
One other reason for the more diverse field is that more students are applying to be in the program. This year, the district began mailing home applications to likely candidates with self-addressed stamped envelopes to be returned to the district office.
With that change, the district received about 500 more applicants for the program. Almost 170 more students were accepted for the 2008-09 school year than this year — including 49 English-language learners and 119 students who receive free and reduced lunches. Those were threefold increases in both categories over the previous year.
"This is exciting," said Howard, who started the district's only elementary school for highly gifted and talented students in 2000 in the old Crofton school in Five Points.
Initially, the student population was 30 percent Latino, 30 percent African-American and 30 percent Anglo — drawing mostly kids from the northeast part of town.
The program has since moved to the larger Ebert School, just north of downtown, and began getting kids from homes in the Stapleton redevelopment. Howard said that changed the demographics of the school, which is now 70 percent white. About 10 percent of the 341 students get federal-meal benefits.
Enrollment into Polaris is highly competitive, with an annual lottery and a waiting list. The Denver school board last year promised to open another highly gifted and talented school, but so far DPS has not delivered.
Letters went out late last month to parents who had sought to get their children into the school. Many were rejection notices telling them of other options for highly gifted students.To meet the growing need, Polaris is dropping a kindergarten class next year and adding another fourth grade, Howard said.
Thirteen of the 33 new fourth-grade students are ethnic minorities, Howard said.
Inside the brick building, off Park Avenue West, creative chaos takes place, Howard said.
"We're very messy," she said, pointing to a cardboard box overflowing with forgotten coats.
Artwork adorns the walls, African drumbeats waft from dance class, and fourth-graders in the library study for their trip to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, near Mesa Verde National Park.
Chirps and squawks
Inside the kindergarten classroom, chirps and squawks come from the menagerie of caged animals — a snake, chicken and hedgehog.
"Does this belong in the classification of poetry or fiction," asked teacher Eileen Wise, after reading a story to the class while petting a hedgehog in her lap.
Kindergartners entering Polaris are reading "Harry Potter" while peers elsewhere are learning their ABCs.
"They are very different children — difficult to raise," Howard said. "They are very intense. This is a safe place for kids to be, and ask their weird questions and make up their strange games."
Soon, she hopes, kids from all backgrounds will have the same opportunity to be safe and weird in their brilliance. http://www.denverpost.com/technology/ci_8442882