Jamille Williamson works on her project in an elective academic enrichment class at Hardy Middle School in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson came to the District in 2007, there was no office for gifted education and no plan for serving the city’s most talented learners. The school system was overwhelmed with working to raise basic skills for the large number of struggling students.

The lack of stimulating District classrooms sent many parents looking for gifted or advanced programs in the suburbs, led them to move their children to charter schools or private schools, or prompted long commutes to schools in the city’s wealthiest Zip codes.

To combat such flight from the public school system, D.C. Public Schools is introducing gifted programs in its neighborhood schools, hoping to attract more talented and motivated students back to the system.

Henderson created an office of advanced and enriched instruction in 2012 and set goals for increasing the number of students who perform at the highest level on citywide tests, an effort “to meet the needs of all young people,” she said.

The District’s new commitment to advanced instruction is part of an appeal to middle-class families who are calling for more challenging classes. It also reflects a national push to identify and serve more low-income and minority students who have been underrepresented in gifted education, a growing well of untapped potential as increasing numbers of students live in poverty.

Sixth-graders Robert Jimenez and Rashad Alimammadov discuss their project with their teacher, Britni Whitty, at Hardy Middle School in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Just 3 percent of low-income fourth-graders across the country scored “advanced” in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress, compared with 14 percent of students from wealthier families. The gap is much wider in the District — 2 percent compared with 26 percent — where middle- and upper-class families are often headed by adults with advanced degrees and six-figure incomes.

Jordin McFadden, an eighth-grader at Kelly Miller Middle School in a high poverty neighborhood in Northeast, recalled her first year at the school as “easy.” In math, her favorite subject, the class was learning simple, one-step equations, and she used to speed through her work, then spend the rest of her time talking to friends.

Then, last year, she joined a new “academy” within her school, where her teachers started introducing lessons beyond her grade level on matrices and quadratics and geometry. Class work started spilling over into an hour of homework every night.

“They push us to do better,” said Jordin, who is planning to go to Phelps ACE, an application high school, next year. “They tell us that life is not easy; you have to work hard.”

Many Washington-area suburban school districts screen students from a young age and offer a range of gifted services starting in elementary school. In New York and Chicago, thousands of 4-year-olds take standardized tests in a highly competitive annual bid for admission to a range of gifted programs that start in kindergarten.

Such approaches invite controversy because they tend to reinforce pervasive racial disparities. Nationally, African American and Hispanic students represent just 10 percent and 16 percent of enrollment in gifted programs despite representing 19 percent and 25 percent of the student body in the districts that offer the programs, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Education Department.

The District has offered gifted services in fits and starts over the years, with special programs offered in some schools or over the summer, and varying levels of support from the central office. At the high school level, top-performing students can compete for admission to selective magnet schools. But elementary schools do not offer the kind of pull-out programs or magnet schools commonly found in other districts. Teachers are trained to provide enrichment within the classroom to strong readers.

As it works to build gifted programs now, the city is pursuing a more flexible path for identifying students for advanced classes and hoping to provide services to as many students as possible.

“We don’t want to further exacerbate race or class disparities that exist,” said Matthew Reif, director of advanced and enriched instruction for D.C. Public Schools.

The cornerstone of their efforts is called the “schoolwide enrichment model,” promoted by Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis, education psychologists at the University of Connecticut. Instead of identifying “gifted students,” the program aims to identify “gifted behaviors” in students, such as above-average abilities, creativity and motivation, and to cultivate those abilities.

The first enrichment programs started in middle schools, where the school system is trying to reverse a steady departure of families, including many that turn to high-performing charter schools that offer rigorous course work as a main selling point. Officials also hope to build a bigger pipeline for a growing number of Advanced Placement offerings in high schools.

At Kelly Miller, students fill out an interest survey at the beginning of the year. Then the school’s enrichment resource teacher, Felicia Messina-D’Haiti, designs mini courses for small groups of students that match their interests.

Such as when four students sat at computers during a recent class writing stories about superheroes with special powers and other tales.

“All of us in here, we are all readers, and our vocabulary is high,” said J’Andre Singleton, a seventh-grader.

Another group, with a shared interest in fine arts, came in next and made presentations about research they had conducted on topics they chose ranging from “What causes fear?” to “A history of Ice Ages.”

At Kelly Miller, 66 percent of students scored below proficiency on the citywide standardized reading test last year, and 42 percent scored below proficiency on the math test. But more than half of the students were tapped for enriched instruction.

For children from wealthy families, opportunities for enrichment come in many forms: summer camps and trips abroad and exposure to more vocabulary words at the dinner table. For poor children, school is more likely to be their main outlet for stimulation.

“Kids who have advantages keep getting better and better. These kids skyrocket because of all their resources,” principal Abdullah Zaki said. “A high-potential kid in a less stimulating environment tends to plateau.”

Despite its recent expansion of enrichment, the District got an F this year in a new report card by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation rating statewide policy initiatives to serve low-income gifted students. The city was found to lack policies promoting acceleration — such as allowing early entrance to kindergarten or letting middle school students take high school classes — which research shows can benefit some students.

Zaki also has started to pursue acceleration in his own school through the “academy,” which clusters students in one wing of the school with one class of sixth-graders, one of seventh-graders and two eighth-grade classes. Students who demonstrate ability or motivation spend the day with similar students pursuing more advanced course work.

The principal said he did not think everyone could be served well in a mainstream class.

“People like to say a teacher can teach the really high-performing kids and the really low-performing kids at the same time,” he said. “In reality, they teach in the middle.”

“When you finish your work in class, what does the teacher give you?” he said. “More of the same, or go help Johnny, or go get a book from the library.”

Kelly Miller, along with Hardy Middle School, were the first D.C. schools to get a full-time enrichment teacher. The program has since spread to three other middle schools and a preschool-through-eighth-grade education campus. A handful of elementary schools also have invested funds in enrichment training.

Hardy, in upper Georgetown, enrolls just 15 percent of its in-boundary families and has been making a push to attract more neighborhood families, as well as to better serve many of the students who are motivated to travel across the city for a better education.

Many current and potential parents at the school have been calling for more gifted programs. Soon after the District announced the enrichment program, parents asked for funding to expand it. They were able to hire one additional teacher, so one focuses on science and another focuses on the humanities.

On a spring afternoon, students in a science elective class worked in small groups on projects. Some were using a kit to make electrical circuits with wires, tinfoil and Play-Doh. One student was programming a toy-sized robot to go through a maze, and a pair of students were on a laptop using modern forensic tools to collect evidence from a 19th-century crime scene in a virtual reality sleuthing game.

Down the hall in a humanities enrichment class, students sat around two long tables discussing the question: Can creativity be taught? Last year, Hardy also introduced honors classes, and this year it offered geometry, a high-school-level course, for the first time.

Marcio Duffles, the president of Hardy’s PTO parent-teacher organization, said the advanced courses were a factor when he enrolled his son three years ago. Duffles said his older son also attended Hardy nearly a decade ago, and he has noticed a difference.

“I would say the level of academic instruction that my younger boy got at Hardy is at least one quantum level higher,” he said.