This imbalance in classes tailored to gifted and talented students is echoed across the region and the nation, a source of embarrassment to many educators.
In theory, a racial enrollment gap in gifted programs should be easier for schools to close than a racial achievement gap. But in practice, experts say, there are many obstacles. Among them, they say, are testing and outreach methods that fail to ensure children from all backgrounds get an equal shot.
In Alexandria, where a bitter struggle to desegregate public schools ended a half-century ago, administrators have vowed over the next year to tackle the problem.
“It’s simply unacceptable,” said Gregory Hutchings, director of pre-K-12 initiatives for city schools. “These numbers tell us that we’re not serving all kids.”
At Cora Kelly Elementary School, Rosalyne Cameron teaches seven gifted fourth-graders, all of them engaged in the kind of high-level inquiry considered a hallmark of gifted education. Last month, Cameron launched a discussion about modern art by asking the class, “What is art?”
The philosophical volleying commenced.
“Anything can be art,” one said.
“No, it has to be beautiful,” another responded.
“It has to be beautiful and interesting,” a third said.
The debate continued, getting increasingly heated.
Four of Cameron’s students are white, two black and one Hispanic. In the city’s elementary and middle school gifted program, 61 percent are white, 17 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
By contrast, 25 percent of Alexandria’s 12,000 students are non-Hispanic white. About 5 percent are Asian, 31 percent are Hispanic and 34 percent black.
Alexandria is debating how to diversify gifted classes without sacrificing rigor. That pursuit could raise questions such as how intelligence is measured and the function of a program catering to the academic elite. “It’s all on the table,” Hutchings said.
While educators across the country face the same problem, Alexandria is particularly sensitive to racial questions. In the 1950s, the city resisted early efforts to allow black students into public schools, firing employees who disagreed.
As the school system today redoubles efforts to boost minority achievement, officials see the “gifted gap” as a hurdle to that aspiration.
“In many ways, the district has been resegregated,” Superintendent Morton Sherman said.
To get into a gifted class in Alexandria, the first step is generally a parent or teacher referral. Sometimes candidates are identified through high state-test scores. Then, candidates are typically given tests that measure intellectual and academic aptitude.
In recent decades, local school agencies and state and federal governments have wrestled with how to define gifted students. Intelligence tests have been tweaked. The referral process in many districts has changed. But many gifted classes remain stacked with white and Asian students.