'Gifted' Label Takes a Vacation in Diversity Quest

Donna Santa Cruz helps Brian Quach at Georgian Forest Elementary School in Silver Spring, one of two Montgomery schools trying to reach out to students with special skills not recognized by testing methods.
Donna Santa Cruz helps Brian Quach at Georgian Forest Elementary School in Silver Spring, one of two Montgomery schools trying to reach out to students with special skills not recognized by testing methods. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Middle school magnet programs in Montgomery County have traditionally operated as schools within schools, offering specialized curriculum to a few select students -- who have been mostly Asian and white.

But this fall, educators decided to try a different approach. Instead of selecting a few hundred students for traditional school magnets, officials opened magnet programs at three middle schools to everyone.

In doing so, county educators -- like officials of a growing number of school systems across the country -- are trying to find a more diverse pool of students. They are experimenting with new ways to reach out to students who might have special abilities but may not have been recognized through traditional screening methods.

"In the future, where we want to move is where it's not so much identifying children as gifted and talented so much as getting them the services they need to reach their potential," said Martin Creel, director of the accelerated enriched instruction division.

In Fairfax County, educators have created the Young Scholars Program, aimed at identifying kindergartners from underrepresented populations who have potential but might need extra support. The school system also has added expanded honors classes at its middle schools in hopes of giving a broader spectrum of students more opportunities, said Carol Horn, coordinator of gifted programs for the school system.

"We've changed from labeling children to labeling services," Horn said. "It's not whether you're gifted, it's what's appropriate for you."

The approach has its critics -- those who fear that curriculum will be watered down because too many kids with varying abilities are being thrown together. But Montgomery and Fairfax officials -- like those undertaking similar efforts across the country -- insist that the quality of education will not be diminished. Key to the task is offering high-quality training that helps educators understand how to reach all students, Creel said.

At two elementary schools, Georgian Forest in Silver Spring and Burning Tree in Bethesda, that means piloting an approach in which students are not formally labeled "gifted and talented" solely through traditional testing. Instead, teachers spend more time watching how individual students perform and place them based on those observations. The change doesn't necessarily mean that all students will be in the highest-level reading group, but it is a strategy for reaching out to kids who might have been overlooked in the past, said Georgian Forest Principal Donald D. Masline.

Educators hope that the new approach will help them address why black and Hispanic students continue to lag behind white and Asian counterparts in achievement and why so few take advanced classes or are admitted into accelerated programs.

Evie Frankl, co-chairman of the Montgomery County Education Forum, one of several groups pushing educators to do away with the gifted and talented label, said she applauds the school system's efforts.

"We would never be naive enough to think it will be easy, but these pilots are exciting because teachers have a chance to work out the kinks," she said.

During the spring, Montgomery officials came under fire from a group of black parents who were concerned about the low numbers of blacks and Hispanics who were being admitted to middle school magnet programs. They were also alarmed by how few of them were being labeled "gifted and talented" by the school system's second-grade screening process, which uses a variety of yardsticks. School officials said they were working diligently to narrow the gap between students but acknowledged that they have more work to do.

But it is just this concern -- that too many students are being shut out of elite programs for reasons difficult to pin down -- that is fueling the school system's push for better access to special programs and less emphasis on labels to determine into which reading or math group a student is placed.

"Many school districts are working very hard to expand the concept and definition of gifted and talented students," said Carolyn Callahan, an education professor at the University of Virginia. "They want to make sure that any student who has potential can expand that potential."

Callahan, who is also director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, said that over the past decade, those who work in the field of gifted and talented education have come to realize that many students may have potential but it is not always identified by traditional screenings.

"There is a firm belief that many times those identified as gifted and talented are just those who have had opportunities," Callahan said.

John Hoven, a longtime advocate for gifted education in Montgomery, said he endorses the idea that the school system needs to ensure that all students are being challenged. But he does not support doing away with the gifted and talented label, as some parents have urged the school system to do. Getting rid of the label fails to acknowledge that some children grasp concepts more quickly than others, he said.

Montgomery educators realize that access is only one part of the equation. They see programs such as the three middle school magnets launched last fall at Parkland, Argyle and Loiederman as a chance to challenge kids -- and a chance to push kids to challenge themselves. Although they recognize that the strategies used to teach elite students can be used to teach all students, they also acknowledge that some students may need more support than others.

"What you're seeing in Montgomery County is true throughout the country," said Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, an education professor at the College of William and Mary and executive director of the college's Center for Gifted Education. "Many school districts are trying to have a dual focus: strong programs and services to kids who are gifted and talented. But the second agenda that the field has adopted is that we need to use what we know -- what works with the gifted -- to raise standards for everyone else."


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