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Why gifted kindergarten is 70 percent white

When some 13,000 Palm Beach County kindergartners head to grade school for the first time on Monday, more than 700 will step straight into a classroom for gifted students.

Too young to be screened by the school district itself, these children land in a gifted class thanks to the efforts and pocketbooks of their parents, who have the $300 to $500 to pay for a private IQ test and the wherewithal to navigate a system disinclined to seek out exceptional students just out of toddlerhood.

Gifted education has long been criticized for being too white, for overlooking bright minority students, many of whom come from poverty or are learning English.

In Palm Beach County, the disparity is most glaring in kindergarten where 70 percent of the gifted students last year were white, compared with an elementary school population that as a whole is only 33 percent so.

Blacks? 28 percent of all elementary students, 4 percent of gifted kindergartners.

As the students age, the numbers improve slightly as teachers have an opportunity to refer their students for testing. Still, the district’s gifted program of nearly 11,000 skews white at 62 percent.

Florida law requires public schools to provide gifted education for students “who have superior intellectual development and are capable of high performance” but leaves it up to districts to decide how.

Palm Beach County administrators are investigating ways to draw more minority students into the program, but solutions that work in other districts don’t always address the incoming kindergarten class.

No one test gets a child into the gifted program.

Most students qualify by logging a 130 IQ or better on a test administered by a psychologist and hitting the marks on a checklist of gifted characteristics as observed by a certified teacher. Because underrepresented kids often do poorly on standard IQ tests, the state allows districts to give those students an alternative route with a lower threshold IQ.

Older students are typically evaluated by the district’s employees. But to get a child into gifted on the first day of kindergarten requires a parent to have the child tested and observed privately.

Shopping for a score

Each spring the prospect of tailored kindergarten drives an annual flock of parents to psychologists such as Myles Cooley in Palm Beach Gardens.

Some parents see their children read or calculate beyond their preschool lessons and fear kindergarten may be boring if they don’t get an amped up curriculum, Cooley said.

Other parents feel social pressure to have “gifted” kids. And some hope a ticket to a gifted classroom helps them skip out of their neighborhood school into a more desirable one, Cooley said. Some are so driven, they prep their children.

“I had one kid, I’m on the second task putting blocks together and he says, ‘Oh I’ve done that.’ So I walk out to mom and she tells me she didn’t trust the first test,” said Cooley. The mom was clearly shopping for a score.

Getting that ticket into a gifted program this year involved traveling a road with more twists than usual.

Getting kids into gifted harder

In 2015, the school district began to crack down on enforcing the rule that a certified teacher be the one to do the observation. The rub? Not all preschools have such a teacher.

To ease into the change in 2015, the district dispatched its own employee to the private pre-K’s to watch nominated students.

Gifted specialist Rosemary Daniels estimates she visited at least a school a day for six weeks at the behest of private preschool headmasters whose parents clamored to have the proper forms in time to be enrolled in gifted kindergarten.

But this past spring, when the annual parent push to qualify children for a gifted education rolled around, district officials told preschools they were on their own, said Daniels’ boss, Exceptional Student Education Director Kevin McCormick.

At Flagler Montessori, Director Janet Nadolana told parents it would be on their shoulders.

“One of our parents contacted a public school teacher she knew and asked if she’d be willing to do it,” said Nadolana. “We probably have seven or eight of a group of 26 that will be kindergarten eligible.”

Some preschools a pipeline

The private push is familiar to popular elementaries such as Palm Beach Public.

Before the last day of the 2016 school year, Principal Christine Schwab calculated she would have three kindergarten classes — the one for gifted students filled to 21 — before school was out.

“I know the majority are coming from several preschools, The Center for Early Learning, Flagler Montessori, Palm Beach Christian. They’ve all been in a pre-K setting,” Schwab said.

Palm Beach Public’s gifted program is 77 percent white. The school is not — more than half its students are minorities.

Palm Beach Public teachers will keep an eye out for students who weren’t flagged by their preschool teachers or parents. But Schwab echoes many when she says she’d would like to see a more diverse class.

The privately tested preschoolers present a conundrum, the district’s McCormick said.

“I don’t understand how we could not permit it,” McCormick said, quoting state rules obligating districts provide an enhanced curriculum for students.

Are kids really gifted so young?

“We’ve seen in the past that we have (private) preschool programs that pretty much guaranteed the students would go into gifted,” McCormick said, noting the absurdity of promising that all enrollees will go on to meet the district’s gifted criteria. “Of course, not all children are gifted.”

Only 3 percent of the population has a 130 IQ or better. About 5.4 percent of students statewide were labeled gifted, about 6 percent, or 10,616 of Palm Beach County’s students in 2015-16 were.

Is it even legitimate to label a child gifted before he or she gets to kindergarten? It’s debatable.

Lisa Van Gemert, a former Youth & Education Ambassador for Mensa, the oldest and largest high IQ society in the world, is on record with six reasons not to test young children, chief among them: Scores at that age are unstable.

“If you test a child who is 3 years old and the score is high … the odds that that score will be the same if the child were tested six years later are very, very low. It’s the equivalent of the IQ lottery. Possible, but don’t make it part of your retirement plan,” Van Gemert wrote in her blog Gifted Guru.

The IQ sweet spot

It’s hard to tease out the difference between a preschooler’s braininess and precociousness, Van Gemert said. Early readers with strong vocabulary and memory wind up with higher scores than they would if they’re older.

Van Gemert believes in an IQ sweet spot, somewhere between 7- and 12-years-old.

Cooley agrees, “It doesn’t really stabilize until age 11.” That doesn’t stop the parent parade that brings two or three students a week from late February to April to his offices to be tested. To make it into gifted kindergarten in Palm Beach County, the IQ test must be done in the same calendar year as when they are placed.

Kimberly Chandler, a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children, has worked in school districts that began identifying children in kindergarten and others that waited until second grade.

“If you have a child who’s highly able and you wait until second grade, you’ve lost two years,” Chandler said. “But you need to make sure you’re using practices that are equitable and you have to do a lot of teacher training.”

For a time, Broward County appeared to have found a way to balance its gifted population overall by screening all students with a brief nonverbal test that blunts the advantages to a middle class vocabulary and upbringing, according to a study by economists at the University of California Berkeley and University of Miami.

But that universal test wasn’t given until second grade and it was costly. It was cut and later replaced with a different test that didn’t yield an equally diverse population.

Still, Palm Beach County’s chief academic officer Keith Oswald said a universal test might be part of the county’s solution.

Clearly, some parents don’t want to wait that long. And their children have an advantage over, say, the 2,000 or so children enrolled in the district’s preschool paid for through HeadStart, the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten and local grants for poor children.

Those teachers do screen for disabilities, said the program’s Director M.J. Steele. But screening for gifted. “No, it’s not something we do in pre-K.”

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