Sixteen-year-old Carolina Sosa grabs one end of a scrolled piece of white card stock and gives the other end to her mom. Standing in the dining room of their Centreville home, they are both grinning broadly as they unfurl an oversize check for $1,000, the winnings of a 2012 essay contest on Hispanic heritage.

It’s midday, and Sosa has already ditched the dress and flats she had donned for an early morning interview to secure a spot at Girls State, the noted civic program run by the American Legion Auxiliary.

Looking more typically teen in jeans, she’s sifting through the mementos of her academic and extracurricular life so far: certificates of achievement, acceptance letters, a photo of the cake she decorated to look like a plant cell for a science project.

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“Honor roll, honor roll, tutoring, Girl Scouts,” Sosa says, flipping through papers that fan out across the dining room table. “This is from the Hispanic leadership program this summer. This is from when I spoke at the Fairfax AP summit.” She’s a naturally animated speaker, but there’s an extra trill of excitement in her voice as she grabs the next document. “This is from the awards ceremony where I met Hillary Clinton. That was so cool.”

The paper trail is impressive, but it tells only part of the story of Sosa’s academic journey, which has rocketed her past a shaky start to advanced classes: gifted and talented, honors, Advanced Placement. This fall the Westfield High School junior will apply to universities including Princeton and her first choice, the school she hopes to attend for almost nothing due to her family’s income, Stanford.

Sosa is an academic high-flier, but with a mother who is a housekeeper originally from Colombia and an Ecuadorean father who is a parking valet, she falls into a demographic — Hispanic and low-income — that historically has been underrepresented at the high end of academic achievement.

In the not-too-distant past a student like Sosa — bright but entering school short on basic skills — could have easily gone overlooked. Instead, Sosa was identified early as potentially gifted through a Fairfax County Public School program aimed at spotting and developing academic talent in underrepresented groups.

That many minorities don’t excel at the same rate as their wealthier, white or Asian peers is evident across high-achievement indices including participation in advanced academics courses, national and state standardized testing scores, and enrollment at elite universities.

And though, in the years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, low-income and minority children have been brought up to minimum competency in greater numbers, progress at the high end has been far less concrete. So much so that the nation risks creating “a permanent talent underclass,” says University of Connecticut professor Jonathan Plucker, whose studies of scores on national and state academic progress tests have raised the alarm about the nation’s “excellence gap.”

A look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 4 math test illustrates the issue: Although 13 percent of students not eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored at the advanced level in 2013, 2 percent of those eligible for free lunch and 5 percent of those eligible for reduced-price lunch did so. Similarly, 22 percent of Asians and 10 percent of whites managed advanced scores, compared with 3 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of blacks.

Hispanics and blacks have higher rates of poverty, but a similar assessment by the nonprofit Education Trust found that racial and ethnic gaps exist, regardless of socioeconomic status. Higher-income black students did better than poor blacks, but still did only about as well as poor white students in reaching the advanced level on NAEP, according to Education Trust.

In recent years some underrepresented groups have improved their NAEP performance, though, “for the past six years, we’ve seen almost no progress whatsoever for black students” in fourth grade, Plucker says. Meanwhile, higher-income white and Asian students have made more significant gains. In other words, “the real success is being shared by the groups that were already successful,” Plucker says.

The resulting neglect of talent “is just bad news,” for students who won’t meet their potential, but also for the nation, especially given the shift toward a majority-minority population and the rising number of low-income students. “Economically,” Plucker says, “I believe we’re going to pay a heavy price.”

Critics of such studies — and even of the focus on gaps — argue that a rise in AP participation and scores, and improvements on state tests, are indicators that underrepresented groups are gaining. And some note that slicing NAEP numbers in a different way shows excellence gaps between subgroups narrowing slightly.

Plucker says that even with NAEP numbers diced in the most generous way, racial gaps will take 50 to 200 years to close at the current rate, and socioeconomic gaps will never close.

Caroline Sosa talks about a class project with her parents, Fabian Sosa and Maria Lopez, in their Chantilly home. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

A 6-year-old Sosa sussed out her status in the first-grade reading group at Centreville’s s Towne Elementary. “I didn’t realize I was actually in the lower group until I saw one girl struggling to read,” Sosa says. “And then I said, ‘Wait, she’s in my group, so I guess I’m a struggling reader, too.’ ”

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. “I wasn’t really immersed in English,” she explains. At home, her parents spoke Spanish, watched TV in Spanish, read books in Spanish; at school, an immersion program meant she took math and science in Spanish. In summer, while her friends headed to camp, Sosa tagged along with her mom to cleaning jobs.

But in 2003, as Sosa struggled to sound out words, her teacher, Karen Ambrose, was on the lookout for candidates to take part in a program aimed at diversifying the school system’s gifted and talented (GT) programs. Sosa, chatty and insatiably curious, “was behind, but you would have never known that to have had a conversation with her,” says Ambrose, now an advanced academic resource teacher. “I knew she had some special talents.”

The program, Young Scholars, had rolled out as a pilot in 2001 after soul-searching among administrators, who observed a glaring lack of diversity in GT programs.

Experts have put forth a variety of theories to explain why bright students in some groups fail to excel: They may enter kindergarten less ready; lack access to enriching resources or activities; face pressure from peer groups that stigmatize high achievement; or contend with instability at home. A lack of basic skills may mask their potential, and teacher bias may creep in.

As Carol Horn, Fairfax County Public Schools’ K-12 program coordinator, made the rounds at schools with high low-income and minority populations in 2000, she learned that bright students were often perilously behind by third grade, when most decisions about gifted services were made.

“The principals said, ‘You really need to start looking in kindergarten and have something for those students,’ ” Horn says. After a pilot program that included a three-week summer camp, Young Scholars was up and running. Today it has expanded to 82 Fairfax schools, serving 5,266 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with roughly half coming from low-income families and half identified because they speak English as a second language. An additional 2,934 Young Scholars are now in high school.

“The school becomes their advocate,” Horn says. To develop their talent, Young Scholars may get advanced work in the classroom or be pulled aside for extra attention. They attend summer camps, field trips and other special events. Many move on to formal GT classes — now called advanced academic services — which have their own acceptance criteria.

And the designation conveys one more benefit: affirmation. As Sosa puts it, “This was a thing that made me special.”

Sosa in her AP U.S. History class at Westfield High School. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

Early talent identification and development has become a focal point in education circles, but even its staunchest advocates say that those efforts alone won’t solve the problem. Getting kids into the pipeline, after all, is no guarantee they’ll stay there.

To improve the odds, Fairfax and other school systems have created a scaffold of supporting programs that include AP and International Baccalaureate prep for middle-schoolers, extra tutoring and guidance, free summer school, online courses and open enrollment for honors and AP classes, and college application help. But nationally, comprehensive programs that follow students from kindergarten to graduation are few and, even at their best, can’t always counter the powerful forces pulling on students.

Sosa didn’t face the worst of those problems. She had a stable, loving family, food on the table, a safe place to live and study. But as she piled on honors and AP courses in middle and high school, she came face-to-face with challenges shared by many peers. For starters, low-income meant little money for educational extras such as tutoring or prep courses. Sosa also lacked a key avenue of guidance as she navigated advanced courses and college prep: parents who had been there themselves.

And as she took her place in classes dominated by students who didn’t share her background, Sosa sometimes felt conspicuously out of place. Case in point: one AP class in which students were asked to introduce themselves by talking about their parents’ jobs. “I always hate that question,” Sosa says. “Not that I’m embarrassed, but I just know I’m going to be different from everyone else.” She stuck it out and even doubled down, working harder than ever. “I didn’t want to be the dumb, poor kid,” she says.

Since Sosa’s early days in the program, Young Scholars has evolved to offer more resources for parents, more formal guidance for students and a closer handoff of care from elementary to middle to high school. And Fairfax, like other Washington area school systems, is working to improve diversity in advanced classes.

Fairfax also has implemented a nonverbal screening test for all students, which has helped identify more potential high achievers. When the program started, white students made up 55 percent of the student body, but 75 percent of children getting mid-tier advanced academic services in kindergarten through eighth grade were white. Asians accounted for 13 percent of students getting services; blacks, 5 percent; and Hispanics, 3.5 percent, despite being about 14 percent of the population. Today, the breakdown better reflects the student population, with whites accounting for 46 percent of those receiving services (they make up about 41 percent of the student body), blacks accounting for 9 percent, Hispanics accounting for 18 percent and Asians accounting for 20 percent.

Changes in the group receiving the highest level of advanced academic services follow a similar pattern, though blacks and Hispanics are still underrepresented. Horn acknowledges there’s still a gap but says, “when you look at the numbers, the numbers have increased exponentially.”

About 78 percent of Young Scholars take AP or IB courses or are in a full-time GT program, with 74 percent of those getting A’s and B’s.

Carolina Sosa reads to third-graders in her former classroom in London Towne Elementary. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

It’s impossible to peg any one force in Sosa’s life to her success. Is it ability? Hard work? Outside support? Likely it’s a blend, plus a healthy dose of tenacity.

Online and on her own, Sosa, who says she’s “always Googling,” cobbled together an impressive web of opportunities to supplement her school’s offerings. Camps, contests, scholarships — anything that might offer her a leg up. “If it’s free, I sign up,” she says.

It was online last year that she learned of the $1,000 Youth Service America grant she would apply for, and win, to start Scholar Society, a new club at a diverse elementary school she knows well: London Towne.

And so it is on a wintry afternoon that Sosa finds herself winding down the final Scholar Society meeting at her former elementary school.

She has met with her 21 sixth-grade club members, listened intently to their goals and offered rapid-fire encouragement and advice, punctuated with high-fives. “I love your goals!” she chirps to more than one student.

Soon she’ll hand out “graduation” certificates and send them home with photocopied lists of low-cost summer camps, plus their choice of glossy college brochures.

The meeting is about to morph into a goodbye party, but Sosa gets the students’ attention one last time. “Stay with your goals,” she implores. “There may be obstacles, but there are always ways to overcome them.”

That they’re arguing over who gets which college brochure is a good sign her advice hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. But it’s nearly 5 p.m., and these are preteens, so it is her next line that really gets their attention. “And now,” Sosa says, “we have pizza for you guys.”

Christina Breda Antoniades is a writer in Baltimore.

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