Anthony Vargas listened intently as a young student launched into her presentation on the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of American Indians trained and recruited to relay secret messages in battles during World War II.
He was as excited as the 6th graders in the humanities-focused gifted and talented “cluster” at Mayfield Intermediate School in the Manassas City public schools in Manassas, Va.
“Why is this [the code talkers] something we should know about?” he asked the student, after she’d wrapped up.
“It might get forgotten about or lost otherwise,” she responded.
Vargas, the district’s supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs, nodded knowingly.
He understands all too well the importance of recognizing the talent and value of historically underrepresented groups. It’s why he’s worked diligently over the last four years to increase the number of Hispanic students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the district’s gifted and talented program, which skewed white and upper income even as students of color and those from low-income households made up a majority of the district’s enrollment.
Under Vargas’ watch, Manassas has been dismantling the barriers to entry into gifted programming, revamping screening methods, and training teachers to spot talent and academic promise in students from historically marginalized groups. It’s also increased the number of teachers—and the budget—to support the new mission.
Expanding access to gifted programs has long been a lofty goal for school systems focused on equity, yet it’s remained elusive for many. While some districts have voluntarily taken steps to increase diversity in special programs, others had to be nudged by lawsuits or compelled by the courts to do so.
Vargas, 33, is demonstrating that deliberate, thoughtful action can yield positive results. The district’s gifted program has grown significantly, to 334 students from 240 four years ago. And as the program grew, the number of students from underrepresented groups kept apace. This school year, 41 percent of the students in the gifted program are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, up from 22 percent when Vargas took over. Hispanic students now make up about 41 percent of gifted education enrollment. Nearly 67 percent of the district’s overall student body come from low-income families, while 65 percent are Hispanic.
“I love that I can see myself in my students,” Vargas said. “I wanted to make a positive change throughout our K-12 programming.”
Correcting a mismatch
Vargas immediately noticed the glaring representation gap when he stepped into the newly created position to oversee gifted programming in 2019.
It’s a problem that’s not unique to Manassas, said Donna Ford, a gifted education expert and a distinguished professor at Ohio State’s department of educational studies. Hispanic, Black, and poor students are underrepresented in gifted and talented and Advanced Placement programs nationally, she said.
“That’s related to recruiting and retaining students in these programs once identified,” Ford said.
Vargas embarked on a massive and multistage undertaking to diversify the program, involving extensive research on equitable practices on how to select students, the kinds of enrichment to provide, implementing evidence-based practices districtwide, and gaining the trust and cooperation of the school community, including the school board.
Parents, who serve on the district’s gifted and talented advisory committee, which makes recommendations on all aspects of the program, also played an important role.
The committee’s research into disparities in the program helped crystalize the need for an overhaul and gained support from the school board. It became the primary driver for creating Vargas’ position.
Rethinking the selection process
Vargas also did his homework. He observed classes, talked to teachers and students, conducted what he called “fly-by frequent” stops, and interviewed colleagues about gifted programming.
“The first real step was getting a full picture of where we currently were. I had to think about: What is the teacher experience? What is the student experience?” he said.
Then he looked at the research, where he saw clear similarities between what he was reading and the obstacles to increasing equity in his own district.
“A major barrier [supported by the research] is teacher inability to see potential in particular groups of students,” he said. “We were getting overreferrals for students who were Asian/white middle and upper class and underreferrals from particularly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged groups.”
Vargas knew that a major overhaul was necessary, especially in how students were chosen to participate in the program. One of the first changes was redefining “giftedness.” Another was eliminating harsh cutoff scores.
“There must be some flexibility to ensure we are making appropriate decisions, especially considering historically excluded students who have testing biases stacked against them,” he said.
Vargas oversaw several changes in how the district assessed giftedness. It moved away from solely using strict scores from standardized tests; began administering to all incoming English learners the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, a nonverbal skills assessment; and adopted Scales for Identifying Gifted Students, or SIG-2, which provides teachers with a nationally-normed checklist of traits to use to identify gifted potential in students.
It takes diving into the students’ work and exploring their thinking beyond what a test can traditionally offer.
Training teachers to recognize ‘giftedness’
Before Vargas took up his position, the district relied on parents and teachers to refer students into gifted programming. But parents aren’t always objective about their children’s abilities and teachers weren’t necessarily trained in how to spot gifted students.
To cast a wider net, gifted and talented teachers now conduct “partner” lessons with classroom teachers to show them how to incorporate talent-identification opportunities into routine class sessions.
“We’ve really pushed teachers to refer kids,” said Amanda Jones, the gifted-resource teacher at Mayfield Intermediate School. “We’re looking for the kid who seems like an outside-the-box thinker and maybe isn’t going to get referred by parents.”
There’s also a broader emphasis on nonobjective measures, such as reviewing students’ portfolios to look at their creativity and passions.
“It takes diving into the students’ work and exploring their thinking beyond what a test can traditionally offer,” Vargas said. “We now more than ever have a holistic look at each student before we find them eligible.”
“What we know is that you can be [gifted and talented] in science and only science,” he added.
That was the case with Grayson, a 6th grader whose mother Keisa Reid grew frustrated when he was put on gifted and talented “monitoring” status rather than admitted to the program because his test scores were slightly below the strict cut-off formerly used to determine eligibility.
Under Vargas’ direction, teachers spent more time observing Grayson’s abilities, and he later gained entry into the program.
“He’s turned out to be a rockstar in the program,” said Vargas.
Grayson’s mother agreed. “My son has blossomed since then,” said Reid, who was in a gifted program as a student in New York.
Increased funding, human capital
Vargas needed money and staff to support the changes, and he successfully lobbied the district for an additional $570,000 over the last two school years to add teachers to the program and to train them.
The staffing changes are having a big impact. High school students can now participate in the program—there was no dedicated staff at that level before Vargas—and 3rd and 4th graders no longer have to travel by bus to a single elementary school to meet with their gifted education teacher.
My thing is: Kids are gifted all day, every day. We need to make sure they’re getting what they need and deserve in their regular environment.
The program also now emphasizes student voice, with students playing a major role in selecting topics that are covered in some classes. Rigor, Vargas stressed, is still a hallmark of the program.
“We continue to ask ourselves, ‘Are kids accessing the learning at a conceptual level?’” he said. “The bar on expectations is still there.”
He’s beefed up instructional programming, too. In addition to pulling students out of regular classes for once-a-week lessons, Vargas has ensured that students have access to enrichment activities during their regular classroom periods. Learning has also expanded beyond traditional lessons, with field trips to museums and visiting experts stopping by to speak to students.
“My thing is: Kids are gifted all day, every day,” he said. “We need to make sure they’re getting what they need and deserve in their regular environment.”
Motivated by personal experience
Growing up Black and impoverished in affluent West Chester, Pa., about 45 miles west of Philadelphia, Vargas often felt like an outsider in his community—although he found support from teachers who believed in him.
“I didn’t always know if I would have a meal,” he said. “It was hard relating [to other students]. However, school was actually a safe space for me. It was a place where I was going to get a meal and where the adults did make me feel comfortable and I did have great connections with teachers. Education became my outlet.”
He had a light-bulb moment in 5th grade, when he had a Black teacher for the first time.
“It made me understand that something like [becoming an educator] was accessible to me. Because I didn’t see it before,” said Vargas, who taught for seven years, including a one-year stint as a gifted education teacher in the district.
He wants to ensure that all students, especially those who remind him of his younger self, have the chance to have these “aha” moments.
“When a teacher believes in you as a student, you can take over the world,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as A Leader Who’s Busting Down Barriers to Gifted Education