Dozens of principals from some of the nation’s most sought-after and selective public high schools gathered last week in Northern Virginia to discuss how to better serve children whose needs they said too often go unmet: High-achieving students from low-income families.

Despite their talent, those students are less likely to make it to and through college than their more affluent peers, data show.

“Most people think if you’re really smart and really poor, you write your own ticket to college,” said Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which organized the gathering. “That’s just not true.”

Named after the late owner of the Washington Redskins, the foundation is perhaps best known for giving out millions of dollars a year in scholarships. But Levy, a former chancellor of New York City Public Schools, said the foundation also wants to create a coalition of educators who can advocate for low-income, high-performing students in school districts and statehouses nationwide.

The event, at the Landsdowne Resort in Leesburg, drew about 100 principals from selective public schools such as New York’s Stuyvesant High School and Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Many face similar issues:

●They want to see stronger talent pipelines so that more low-income and minority students are emerging from middle school ready for advanced high school work.

●They want to have better entrance exams to determine which middle-school students have the potential to excel.

●And they want to build stronger social and emotional supports to help their low-income students in high school and beyond.

“For me what has been most powerful has been realizing how quickly we all connect on these issues,” said Lisette Morris, executive director of the Ingenuity Project at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Educators often talk about the need to close the achievement gap, which in the era of No Child Left Behind often means raising the share of poor and minority students who are proficient on math and reading tests.

The Cooke foundation’s mission is to close the “excellence gap,” ensuring that gifted and talented low-income students have the opportunities and challenges that they need to thrive.

Those excellence gaps have grown in the No Child Left Behind era, according to Jonathan Plucker, a University of Connecticut professor who spoke at the conference. The proportion of white, more affluent students who score at the advanced level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — or NAEP, the nation’s report card — has increased in math, for example, while the performance of other groups has remained stable.

Less than one percent of low-income eighth-graders scored “advanced” on the 2011 NAEP reading exam; more-affluent students were five times more likely to score advanced. Math was better, but not much: 2.5 percent of low-income eighth-graders scored advanced compared with nearly 13 percent of more-affluent students.

“I don’t understand where the outrage is,” Plucker said. “It’s a bigger long-term issue than I think people realize.”