Students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds remain underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, which offer academic enrichment beyond grade level.
In Virginia’s Manassas City public schools, Anthony Vargas, 33, the supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs, has worked hard to ensure that students identified and enrolled in the district’s gifted program are representative of the larger student body.
In the last four years, the proportion of students in the program who come from families living in poverty jumped to 41 percent from 22 percent, and the share of Hispanic students increased to 41 percent from 26 percent.
Vargas, a 2023 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, spoke to Education Week about his efforts to create greater equity in his district’s gifted education program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In just four years, you have vastly increased the percentage of the district’s Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students to better match the district’s overall student demographics. What was your first step toward this goal?
I focused on fostering a growth mindset of all stakeholders as it relates to talent development. Parents, teachers, administrators, school counselors, and other educational leaders worked together to build the new GT plan. This plan really drives our work. It took this stakeholder team the entire school year to revise our old plan. This included many meetings so we all could build common language and understanding.
Why was this GT plan so critical, and what preparation did it require on your part?
Unlike special education or ESOL [English for speakers of other languages], gifted education does not have many federal/state laws with specific mandates. Instead, each district basically creates a plan for servicing gifted students that will help them succeed. Before I could effectively communicate with the stakeholders the new GT plan I had in mind, I had to dive deep into our district’s current programming, share the disparities in our demographics [between GT students and the district’s overall student population], show what the research is saying, and seek out other school districts with similar demographics to see how they are tackling the many challenges of creating a more equitable GT program.
What barriers needed to be addressed before creating more equitable GT programming?
Most of the work revolved around identifying barriers to GT access and breaking them down. One example is “harsh cutoff scores” or accepting students based solely on a set test score. There must be some flexibility to ensure we are making appropriate decisions, especially considering that historically excluded students have testing biases stacked against them.
How did you educate stakeholders about these barriers?
I turned to research that would support my efforts at highlighting how educators’ mindsets may play into challenges with identification of certain historically excluded groups. A major barrier supported by research is teachers’ inability to see potential in particular groups of students. When looking at our own data, we realized that this study can be directly applied to our district, as we were getting overreferrals for students who were Asian/white middle and upper class and underreferrals from Hispanic and economically disadvantaged groups.
Once you had the stakeholders on board, what went into the actual act of identifying talent on a more equitable basis?
The first thing we had to do to expand invitations for participation in GT programming was to get more referrals from stakeholders, particularly classroom teachers. To do this, we increased professional development to educate teachers on how to identify gifted students on a more holistic basis and redesigned our programming. It also involved working closely with the teachers, providing in-class enrichment lessons by a gifted resource teacher, all while the classroom teacher has a list of “look-fors” to spot potential in the students, such as creativity and critical-thinking skills. Here’s an example: Do the students present a given idea in an intricate or complex way? Did they elaborate on details or show evidence of solving a problem in a sophisticated way beyond that of a typical student [at that grade level]?
What was your approach to securing additional financial resources required to expand the program?
We were practical and used a slower rollout process over a longer period. Instead of asking for four brand-new teachers, which is a big ask in a budget for a year, I just asked for two. An important piece was showing the goals for those positions and how they will lead to better identification practices. Once we secured the two positions and I could show the positive shift, it was even easier to ask for the other two positions.
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