Alexandria schools aim for more minorities in gifted classes

Teacher Stephanie Neal leads gifted third-graders at Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria through a vocabulary drill. From left are Michael Pezzuto, Keegan Lekus, Malaya Greaux, Eliza Booke, Sohail Nassiri and Lewi Abseno.
Teacher Stephanie Neal leads gifted third-graders at Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria through a vocabulary drill. From left are Michael Pezzuto, Keegan Lekus, Malaya Greaux, Eliza Booke, Sohail Nassiri and Lewi Abseno. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

When Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman walks the halls of the city's schools and peers into classrooms, he can often guess whether the class he's watching is gifted.

"Standing at the door, looking through the glass, you can tell what kind of class it is" by looking at the colors of the students, he said. "It shouldn't be that way."

Alexandria is a majority-minority school system, except in its gifted program. White students, 25 percent of the total enrollment, are 58 percent of those labeled "gifted." Hispanics and African Americans, 25 and 40 percent of enrollment, respectively, account for about 10 and 20 percent of those in gifted classes.

Sherman, at the helm for a little more than a year, is bringing fresh attention to equity issues that have long confounded the small urban school system, where half of the 11,000 students live in poverty.

He is looking to expand minority enrollment in elementary-level gifted programs, which provide acceleration and enrichment for students and ultimately a pipeline of talent for the district's toughest math and Advanced Placement courses.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced last week that the Virginia Education Department will examine the low enrollment of black and Hispanic students in gifted programs throughout the state. A report to be delivered in the spring will detail ways to make gifted programs match the demographics of local districts.

Education Department records requested by the NAACP show pervasive disparities in Virginia's gifted programs.

In Danville, in the southern part of the state, black students were 70 percent of the student body in 2007-08 but only a quarter of those identified as gifted.

In Fairfax County, which offers several levels of gifted services, black students were about 11 percent of those enrolled but 7 percent of those selected for gifted services. Hispanic students in Fairfax make up 17 percent of enrollment but 8 percent of those in gifted programs.

Alexandria's disparities were the widest in Northern Virginia.

"Latino and African American students are not having their intellectual gifts nurtured and not being given the same opportunities to excel," said Arthur Almore, education chairman for the Chesterfield County NAACP.

Children living in poverty are often at a disadvantage when it comes to traditional measures of intelligence or aptitude. They are less likely to have college-educated parents, books in their bedrooms or dinner table discussions that expand on what they learn at school.

Students learning English, including about one in five Alexandria students, can struggle to articulate higher-order thinking. And educators might have stereotypical ideas about what a gifted child looks like.

Diann Gully, curriculum specialist for Alexandria's talented and gifted program, said her staff will revise its plan for identifying and serving gifted students over the next year and explore different tools for identifying intellectual talent.

About 12 percent of children in Alexandria's schools qualify for gifted services. Students must score a superior rating on four out of five evaluations, including an aptitude test, an achievement test, teachers' observations of their learning style, samples of class work and grades.

The Alexandria School Board has approved changes to the screening process for gifted services in recent years. In February, all second-graders will sit for an aptitude test that will determine whether they should be screened. In the past, children had to be referred for screening.

Alexandria also rolled out a nonverbal test in 2006 to reach more children who might encounter language barriers or other cultural biases. The school system is also considering adopting a "young scholars" program developed in Fairfax, which identifies children in high-poverty schools who show potential and gives them extra enrichment. Many children from the program have been found eligible for gifted services later.

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