Parents Press for Attention to Programs for Gifted Students
Advocacy efforts gain urgency amid worry of being overlooked
From court cases and legislative lobbying to their own fundraising campaigns, parents are putting pressure on states and school districts to boost services for gifted children, whose needs and abilities, they say, often aren’t met inside a traditional classroom.
While parents of the gifted have long faced challenges in proving the worth in providing “extras” for highly capable students, the fight has become even harder now in many districts where dollars are tight and other needs are deemed more pressing.
And, according to some advocates, the stakes can be even higher for low-income and minority parents who view gifted and talented programs as a means of providing their children with greater opportunity in cash-strapped school systems.
“In a low-resourced district, the concerns of parents of gifted students who can’t access gifted education services are often heightened,” said Natalie Jansorn, the director of those programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships and other funding to help gifted students. “They have no assurance their child will be challenged in the regular classroom that is focused on meeting minimum test requirements, and they don’t know where else to turn.”
Currently, there is no federal requirement that schools offer gifted services for students and no dollars allocated to states to provide them. The Jacob K. Javits federal grant program, which provided $7.4 million annually in grants for gifted education research and for efforts to serve under-represented populations, was cancelled in 2011.
Program support also varies greatly from state to state and district to district. According to research from the Washington-based National Association for Gifted Children, 14 of the 43 states it surveyed provided no funding for gifted education in 2012-13, and six states cut funding for gifted education between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years. While 32 states mandated some level of gifted services, only four fully funded the mandate, while eight were unfunded.
The situation gets even more complicated at the district level, said Nancy Green, the association’s executive director. Most localities decide independently how to determine giftedness and what services to provide for students deemed gifted. Parents often must press education leaders to test their children for giftedness, provide enrichment opportunities and pull-out programs for gifted students, and offer professional development for teachers in gifted education, she added.
“Parents too often find that many schools are not willing to make even the most basic changes in a child’s curriculum that could make a major difference for a gifted and talented student,” Ms. Green said. “Parents can [then] find themselves advocating at many levels—in their child’s school, at the district level, and sometimes even with state legislators, as they make the cases for services.”
'The Black Eye'
Low-income and minority parents have been pushed to advocacy because of their children’s underrepresentation in gifted education programs, as shown in national enrollment figures.
As of 2012, white and Asian students made up nearly three-fourths of students enrolled in gifted and talented programs in the U.S., disproportionate to their total student enrollment percentage, according to the U.S Department of Education. Latino and black students, by contrast, made up 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of those enrolled in gifted programs nationally, while they in turn represented 25 percent and 19 percent of the student population, respectively.
According to Tracy Cross, a professor and the executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., underrepresentation of low-income and minority students in gifted education has been what some call “the black eye of the field” for some time.
William & Mary is one of several institutions whose supplementary enrichment programs for K-12 gifted students specifically target low-income and minority families. The Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Project EXCITE at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., are others. All of these initiatives receive funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, based in Lansdowne, Va.
Several organizations offer advice and resources for parents who want to advocate for gifted programs for their children.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development: In addition to providing several programs for gifted students, the institute based in Reno, Nev., maintains an online database of resources about gifted education. Users can access articles and publications, connect to other parents through a discussion forum, and read a blog on gifted education.
National Association for Gifted Children: Among other online resources, the organization’s electronic handbook on parent advocacy guides parents in getting organized to push education leaders for more services and programs. Its “Gifted by State” chart lists gifted education contacts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. A CD-ROM called the Mile Marker Series, a compilation of resources on gifted education for parents, is also available for purchase.
The NEAG Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development: The website for the center, located at the University of Connecticut, includes links to research and news articles on gifted education, in addition to a resource page for parents with a myriad of websites and organization recommendations.
Hoagies Gifted: An “all things gifted” resource website for parents and teachers that helps parents understand what gifted means and how to test for giftedness, ways to connect with other parents of gifted students, and how to find programs and services outside of schools that serve gifted students.
SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted): The association’s website provides a wealth of gifted education recommendations and resources for parents that include names of speakers and workshop leaders, books and research articles, contact information for active parent groups, a list of mental health professionals that work with gifted students, and how to get a child tested for gifted services.
These programs provide direct outreach to parents as part of their work, including information on how to access free or low-cost enrichment opportunities outside of school, scholarships and financial aid, and classes their children need to be prepared for higher education.
According to Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, minorities are also at a greater disadvantage in accessing gifted education because of districts’ measures to determine whether a student is gifted. These policies and procedures can discriminate against students who may not have had access to resources and opportunities outside of school that help highlight exceptional talents and abilities. Teachers often are ill-equipped to identify students who are highly capable since few states require pre-service teachers to receive training in gifted education, she said.
The onus then falls to parents to access gifted services for their children, and oftentimes districts do not do enough to make disadvantaged parents more aware of how to do so.
“You can’t push and advocate for a program you don’t know exists, isn’t in your language, or you have never had experience with yourself,” Ms. Ford said. “Minority parents want their kids identified as gifted and to have access to rigorous programs, but they can’t do that when it’s kept a big secret and mystery.”
Ms. Ford testified in a court case, MacFadden v. Board of Education for Illinois School District U-46, brought by black and Latino parents who claimed, among other things, that the more-than 40,000-student Elgin, Ill., district both underrepresented minorities in gifted education, and segregated minority students into a separate gifted program from white students.
In a decision issued this past July, a judge in the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois found the district at fault for creating a separate, segregated program for gifted Latino students at the elementary school level who were English-proficient. The judge also found that, overall, the district’s services for gifted children discriminated against Latino and black students.
Heading Off Problems
Some districts are trying to tackle these issues head on before they become problems.
In the 185,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, low-income students who exhibit signs of being gifted are identified as early as kindergarten through a K-8 program called Young Scholars, part of Fairfax’s district-wide gifted program. The district then provides additional resources that continue through middle school, with the goal of having students take advanced courses in high school and go on to college.
And in the nearby District of Columbia, starting last school year, the 45,000-student district remodeled six predominantly low-income middle schools to provide talent development and gifted services for all students in the schools. More than 75 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The new models were created both to heed parent demands for more gifted services (and keep their children in the district) and to develop talents in more of the student population than a small, selective group, said Matthew Reif, the district director of advanced and enriched instruction.
The District of Columbia’s program is built on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model developed in 1985 by Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. The model is centered on broadening what constitutes “gifted” by trying to develop talents and skills in all students through enrichment opportunities tailored to students’ individual interests. It has been implemented in more than 2,500 U.S. schools, including recently in several schools in Connecticut and Texas, among others.
According to Mr. Renzulli, the model is reflective of national trends in gifted education: using more than cutoff IQ scores to determine giftedness, and providing differentiated levels of instruction to gifted students within a classroom, rather than segregating them for additional services.
To Julie Gonzales, a parent of four gifted children in the Denver area (all of whom have completed school), the labels and tests can detract from the good-intentioned reasons parents of gifted students are pushed to advocacy for their children in the first place.
“The word ‘gifted’ itself is a button-pusher and often misunderstood,” she said. “Gifted education is about providing intellectually challenging learning opportunities for young people of exceptional potential that are hungry to learn.”
While trying to get more challenging opportunities for her own children and running into repeated roadblocks with her local schools years ago, Ms. Gonzales was inspired to band together with a few other mothers of gifted students in her 53,000-student Cherry Creek district. After a number of “angry and tearful” meetings, Ms. Gonzales’ group pressured the district to open The Challenge School in 1994, which serves only highly capable K-8 students admitted through an application and testing process.
But Ms. Gonzales didn’t stop her advocacy efforts with the opening of The Challenge School. After obtaining an advanced degree in gifted education, she went to work for the district as a gifted education development specialist, helped set up a legislative day for the cause at the state capitol, and started an enrichment program that targets diverse, low-income, and minority students in her district.
Advocacy also was crucial in Washington State, which until recently left the decision to provide gifted education almost entirely up to local school districts. The state previously had a pot of money districts could apply for if they wanted to provide gifted services. But the limited funding meant a district had to put up as much as $5 of its own money for every $1 spent by the state—a large disincentive, according to David Berg, a parent of a gifted child and member of several gifted education advocacy groups in the state.
Several state-level advocacy groups with strong parental support—the Washington Coalition for the Gifted, the Northwest Gifted Child Association, and the Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted—banded together to pressure the state to change the way it funded gifted education.
In response to much lobbying, letter and email writing, and other pressure at the capitol, the state agreed through legislative action in 2011 to require that districts provide gifted education within basic education rather than as a supplement to it.
As Washington districts are beginning to put new gifted programs in place, parents and other activists are pushing the state to provide more funding. As it stands, all districts in the state now share the same amount of money as a much smaller group of districts shared before the funding formula was changed, said Mr. Berg.
According to Diana Reeves, a member of the parent advisory council for the national gifted children’s group and a former gifted education teacher and state board member, convincing education leaders to spend money on gifted education is challenging for districts, especially since the recent recession. Districts may find such spending more palatable when a diverse group of parents lobby the district together as a whole, she said.
There has been a bright spot for parents of gifted students in recent years: the new and growing capabilities provided by digital technology. Parents of gifted students are now able to connect to one another through networking websites and social media and access online materials on gifted education, Ms. Reeves added.
To many gifted education advocates, especially parents, their greatest challenges are in proving the worth of gifted education, as many believe highly capable students will skate through the school system, or at the least perform competently. This is not always the case, they say, especially for disadvantaged students.
“Gifted students exist everywhere: It’s about finding them, serving them, and making them a more visible, critical mass,” said Ms. Jansorn of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “If we’re talking about equity in education, we have to address both struggling and high-achieving students; I think we’re ready to move towards educational equity that includes excellence for all students at the core.”
Vol. 33, Issue 06, Pages 1,14-15