Project for Gifted Limited-English Students Fights To Survive
SAN DIEGO--Four years ago, Hispanic children accounted for just 8.7 percent of the students in the San Diego City school district's Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program, even though they made up one-third of the district's overall enrollment.
Juan Carlos Merchant, then a Spanish-speaking 2nd grader, had been regarded by most of his teachers as not too bright and far too active--perhaps even hyperactive. It looked as if getting him through school might be a challenge.
But that year, the district established Project Excel, one of the few programs in the nation with the specific purpose of identifying and educating the gifted and talented among limited-English-proficient students.
Juan Carlos, who had impressed one teacher with the creativity of his drawings, was referred to Project Excel and subsequently was identified as highly gifted.
Now in the 5th grade, he speaks English well, directs his energy toward reading and playing with computers, and talks of becoming an astronaut. His mother wonders if his younger sister may also be gifted, and is pushing for her to be placed in GATE classes as well.
Meanwhile, Project Excel, which so far has helped boost the proportion of Hispanic children in the GATE program to 13.3 percent of the approximately 14,200 students served, continues to fight for its survival.
Operating at the uneasy intersection of two distinct programs--bilingual education and education for the gifted and talented--Project Excel illustrates the difficulties districts face in trying to serve gifted L.E.P. students.
"Both programs are highly political, very controversial, and struggling on their own to survive,'' said Rosa Isela Perez, the coordinator of Project Excel.
"How,'' Ms. Perez asked, "can you expect them to come together?''
Filling the 'Talent Pool'
Designed specifically to serve Hispanic L.E.P. students, Project Excel has an annual budget of about $91,000 and involves about 32 bilingual teachers serving slightly more than 1,000 students at six schools.
Project Excel teachers are trained to identify gifted students and to incorporate higher-level-thinking strategies into their lesson plans. Such strategies are designed to improve the education of students already labeled gifted and to provide challenges that will enable other gifted students to emerge.
Kindergartners enter Project Excel classes randomly. As they progress through the 2nd grade, their classes grow in size and in number as children who may be gifted are referred into their "talent pool.''
Toward the end of the 2nd grade, those children identified as potentially gifted are given a nonverbal intelligence test--the Raven's Progressive Matrices--and, if appropriate, are placed in the regular GATE program or in transitional bilingual GATE classes.
Children who do not seem appropriate for GATE classes eventually return to regular classrooms.
Few Similar Efforts
Despite its early success, Project Excel continues to be one of only a handful of programs for gifted and talented L.E.P. children funded under Title VII of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, according to U.S. Education Department officials.
In addition, the Education Department's Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program has awarded more than a dozen grants to programs that specifically target L.E.P. children. But most of the programs do not provide separate classes specifically for gifted and talented L.E.P. children; instead, according to the department, they focus primarily on trying to insure that such children are identified.
Elinor Ruth Smith, a consultant to San Diego's GATE program who has worked with several other California districts on educating gifted children, said that districts' heavy focus on identification procedures has resulted in a paucity of programs that actually serve such students.
"There is no perfect test,'' said Ms. Smith, who urges districts to move forward with the best identification mechanisms they have.
Because such programs often rely on federal grants as their chief source of funding, Ms. Perez said, they often cease to exist once the grant money runs out.
In addition, Project Excel and similar programs continue to come under attack from many of the same forces that have been critical of gifted education in general.
Last month, as Ms. Perez gave a tour of one Project Excel school, Brooklyn Elementary, Vice Principal Minerva Johnson told her that some teachers there were pushing for the elimination of the separate classes established by the project. The classes, the teachers were complaining, "take the cream of the crop and leave them barren,'' Ms. Johnson said.
Along with Project Excel, the district has been operating an experiment in heterogeneous grouping for high school students. Called Advancement Via Individual Determination, the program places ethnic- and linguistic-minority students with low grades--but average to high standardized-test scores--in rigorous academic classes alongside their high-achieving, non-L.E.P. peers.
A study by University of California researchers of 1990 and 1991 graduates of the AVID program, including both the minority and nonminority students, found that 50 percent enrolled in four-year colleges, compared with slightly less than 40 percent of their peers locally and nationally.
The researchers cautioned, however, that the AVID program had provided its participants with extra social and academic supports and that, without such aid, "untracking may be a disaster.''
And, despite the success of Project AVID, Ms. Smith maintains that mixing students of various perceived ability together in the same classrooms "will not change the mentality of people who do not think that black or brown people can learn at higher levels.''
James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said his organization has not formally taken a position on the issue of ability grouping.
While he opposes rigid tracking, Mr. Lyons nonetheless has been
pushing for greater efforts within bilingual-education programs to
better serve children of differing abilities and needs.