School district seeks more minority gifted students

The county’s education leaders say they are slowly chipping away at the factors that contribute to a disproportionately – and overwhelmingly — white enrollment in the school district’s gifted classrooms.

Armed with a test to screen all second graders at selected schools and plans to eventually install full-time gifted programs at every elementary, Palm Beach County education officials say they are making headway but have years to go before those rolls more closely reflect the district’s overall population.

Though some 70 percent of the district’s students are identified as black, Hispanic or something other than white, in the 2016-17 school year those minorities held only 38 percent of the seats in gifted classrooms.

In the first year of the district’s efforts to remedy the disparity, minority enrollment grew to 41 percent, said Kevin McCormick, director of Exceptional Student Education.

“There are a lot more kids who are gifted that could be identified as gifted,” said Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald. “We just got started. Last year was just a pilot to work the kinks out. The indicators point to the fact that we will be addressing those disparities.”

Increasing minority representation in gifted classrooms is part of a districtwide effort to find talented students early and give them more opportunities to be academically challenged and thrive — all while closing achievement gaps revealed in standardized testing.

Florida law requires public schools to provide a tailored education for students “who have superior intellectual development and are capable of high performance.” To qualify as gifted, students must earn a benchmark IQ and hit the marks on a checklist of gifted characteristics as observed by a certified teacher.

But the law doesn’t direct districts how to seek these students. It also doesn’t dictate that students be in a full-time class with similarly talented students.

The district’s two-prong approach to diversity and equity begins by making a full-time gifted program available at all its elementary schools – particularly those with a preponderance of low-income, minority students.

With an elementary school enrollment of nearly 77,000 and a gifted enrollment of less than 7,000, the district has historically been unable to provide a full-time gifted program for every grade at every school. For years, it instead offered children at some schools a bus ride to another that could accommodate them.

Other schools had part-time programs with students getting pulled out of classes regularly or no gifted program at all.

“If you look at the schools that had the gifted sites, they were outside the inner city. So, in order for a child to access gifted they would have to go to the more suburban area,” McCormick said. “If we are truly trying to provide equity, we provide it at every school.

“Our kids in Riviera Beach were traveling north. With parents who work and have aftercare and don’t have reliable transportation, it would be impossible to pick up children if they participate in clubs or have to stay after school. It’s not equitable if we’re not providing programs closer to children’s homes,” McCormick said.

In 2017, 20 elementary schools, which fed into gifted centers because they had only part-time gifted or none at all, opened full-time programs. The district is not tinkering with that feeder pattern further this year. Instead, it wants to work on building quality in the new full-time centers.

Doing that requires filling seats in the new full-time programs – enough to have at least a gifted classroom for students in every grade.

Until now, students most often land in the program after being referred for screening by their teachers – a process that can take months and begins only after students have been around long enough for a teacher to spot their abilities. This path to the program is subjective and can lead to biases if the teacher isn’t properly trained to look beyond good grades and compliant behavior, authorities in gifted education agree.

Alternately, some students wind up in a gifted class if their parents seek screening and further testing confirms placement. (The district’s gifted kindergarten classes are filled almost exclusively by children who have been privately tested, a process that can cost their parents hundreds but end-runs any wait for a referral. It’s an end-run that also fills gifted kindergarten classrooms with proportionately more white faces than any other grade.)

This is where a school-wide screening program comes in handy, McCormick said. The district is employing a brief test, giving it to all second graders to flag students who may qualify as gifted.

A similar screener proved successful in Broward County, where it was used to address disparities in its gifted program.

“This is for the kids who fell under the radar because they aren’t teacher pleasers,” McCormick said.

In the spring of 2017, 13 schools with a preponderance of poor and minority students screened all of their second grade students. Of 1,329 students the screener flagged 60, or about 4.5 percent of them, to undergo more vetting. That’s a rate in line with accepted estimates of the gifted population.

Last spring, the district extended the universal screener, as it’s called, to 33 schools: 3,171 second graders were tested, sending 148 minority students for further testing.

Testing costs at one time tripped up efforts to test all second graders in Broward County. Testing more than 3,000 students in Palm Beach County cost just over $30,000, McCormick said. Next year, the district will continue the screener at the same 33 schools.

More students requires more teachers trained to fine tune their lessons and manage a class of students who are at times easily bored with standard fare. The district is giving teachers more opportunities to take the five required college courses to earn what is called a gifted endorsement. The district is offering the courses for free – but teachers have to pay for the certification. No salary bonus comes with the job, though some say working with the school’s brightest students is its own reward.

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