Student Well-Being

Mining for Gifted Students in Untapped Places

By Corey Mitchell — December 12, 2019 | Corrected: December 13, 2019 7 min read
Jeannine Disviscour, the lead teacher of Moravia Park Elementary School's Gifted and Advanced Learning program, teaches 2nd graders about early architecture last month. The class is part of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth's Emerging Scholars program.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect number for the share Baltimore Emerging Scholar students who are considered ready for the Center for Talented Youth. Seventy percent of program graduates qualify. Citywide, 3 percent of students qualify by traditional testing.
Additionally, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Dennis Jutras, the coordinator of gifted and advanced learning for the Baltimore schools.


When Cellini Eastman searches for potentially gifted students, she defies convention.

Eastman bypasses the impeccable report cards and off-the-charts test scores—there are already programs set up for those students.

She wants to find bright children who don’t stand out in a traditional classroom.

“I don’t look at what they ... have, I look at what they need,” Eastman said.

The children Eastman works with in a weekly after-school program are part of an experiment, the Baltimore Emerging Scholars program. A partnership between the district and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the program is designed to mine untapped potential in Baltimore, a school system where student test scores are nearly two grade levels below the national average.

At 21 schools across the city, the program introduces 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students to above-grade-level lessons on architecture, engineering, and astronomy.

Most of the schools, which serve large numbers of black and English-learner students, rank among the bottom quarter of schools in the state of Maryland.

When the program began in 2014, the organizers had to convince principals that there were potentially gifted students in their schools.

The principals “would say, ‘This is great and really exciting ... but we don’t have any of those kids in our school,’” said Ashley Flynn, the associate director of research and special initiatives at the Center for Talented Youth, a gifted education program for school-age children around the globe.

“That dialogue has changed and people are recognizing that there’s academic talent and that it comes in different shapes and sizes,” said Flynn, a former Baltimore high school math teacher. “It may not look the way that they’re used to.”

Moravia Park Elementary School 2nd graders Awaicha Tafah, left, and Courtland Young, second from left, take part in the early architecture class, which is taught during the school day at Moravia.

Effective talent-development programs train teachers to work as talent scouts, spotting children who may not have the motivation or support they need to excel academically in traditional classrooms, said Del Siegle, the director of the National Center for Research on Gifted Education at the University of Connecticut.

But more often than not, teachers instead serve as deficit detectives, weeding out the students they assume won’t be a good fit because they have less-than-stellar achievement test scores, don’t pay attention in class, or are English-language learners, Siegle said.

“You need someone who can say, ‘Look at the interesting questions this kid asks, there’s something going on in that brain up there,’” he said. “It’s really hard to pick potential. Without giving kids opportunities, the talent won’t surface.”

‘She Wants Us to Be Smart’

The science, technology, engineering, and math-based classes in the Emerging Scholars program are interdisciplinary, weaving in lessons on reading, writing, and social studies, but the instructors have latitude in how they teach.

Schools determine whether the 25-week-long classes—all taught by Baltimore city schools teachers—are held before or after school, or as pullout classes during the day.

At Moravia Park Elementary on Baltimore’s east side, Jeannine Disviscour selected Awaicha (pronounced o-ay-shah) Tafah, the French-speaking son of Cameroonian immigrants, because his classroom teacher marveled at how quickly he processed information, especially in math.

A 2018 study from Siegle’s national center found that few school districts offer programs to identify and recruit potentially gifted students who don’t perform well on traditional measures.

Some of the students at Moravia Park have failed math, struggled with phonics, or been labeled as “problem kids” because they do not focus in class.

Despite their struggles, Disviscour or another teacher saw something in them.

On a recent morning, Disviscour kneeled on the carpet in her architecture class to console a teary-eyed 7-year-old struggling to spell “parallel.” At the same time, she encouraged Awaicha to lead his classmates on a scavenger hunt for shapes.

The constant movement and inquiry are by design. Disviscour aims to keep the children engaged and asking questions, challenging the teacher and classmates.

“She gets to teach us that she wants us to be smart,” 2nd grader Aubrey Chestnut said.

Racial Imbalance

The Center for Talented Youth sought out the partnership with the city schools because certain students—mainly black and low-income—had largely been shut out of its programs, which benefit academically talented students in all 50 states and more than 90 countries.

Leaders there decided the key to finding a more diverse pool of students was not testing more children or lowering the bar for participation; it was finding another way to identify them.

“Our focus is on those kids who have the strength in academics that we just have to try and uncover,” said Amy Shelton, the center’s interim executive director. “How do we really serve these kids in Baltimore city in a way that pushes as many as possible to reach the highest level of potential?”

Second grader Awaicha Tafah, works on his architecture assignment in the Emerging Scholars program. Students who show academic potential in the program can be referred to the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University.

At the end of each Emerging Scholars session, instructors write evaluations for each student that gauge whether they are ready for traditional CTY programming. Seventy percent of Baltimore Emerging Scholars students are deemed Center for Talented Youth-ready. This compares to only 3 percent of Baltimore schools students qualifying through above-grade-level testing.

The bar for participation is high. Johns Hopkins uses above-grade-level tests, such as the SAT and the School and College Ability Test, that measure math and verbal reasoning abilities.

In the Emerging Scholars program, each school also sets its own selection process for the program, with most relying on staff recommendations or teachers’ intuition.

But data show similar scores on some cognitive measures, such as those for processing speed and spatial skills, for students who complete the Emerging Scholars program with high evaluations and those who come to CTY by more traditional paths.

Johns Hopkins and Baltimore are not alone. School districts across the country have struggled to address the racial imbalance of their gifted learning programs.

In New York, 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic; yet white and Asian students represent more than 70 percent of students in the city’s gifted programs.

The disparities in the Baltimore schools aren’t as stark but still exist. While nearly 80 percent of the school system’s students are black, black students represent slightly less than half of the students classified as gifted. District data for the 2019-20 school year indicates 57 percent of students classified as gifted are black.

“These programs have tried to be more equitable,” said Donna Ford, a distinguished professor at Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. “They’re not there yet. They are by no means there yet.”

To bring the demographics of identified students closer in line to the overall makeup of their districts, educators must do four things, Ford said: address educator bias that leads to the underreferal of black, Latino and low-income students; review screening procedures to ensure all students are evaluated; use qualifying tests that are less linguistically and economically biased; and, most importantly, improve outreach to families from underrepresented groups.

“We can educate and enlighten them about ... how their children could and should qualify [for programs],” Ford said.

‘Let’s Feed Them’

The Center for Talented Youth staff train the program instructors, warning them to expect pushback and frustration when students struggle with the above-grade-level material.

“Students will be pushed in ways that they have not been pushed in the past,” Flynn told teachers during a training earlier this year.

At another Baltimore school, Gwynns Falls Elementary, on a fall afternoon, Eastman guided students through a lesson on engineering design: developing a step-by-step guide to making a sandwich.

David Edwards and Tayler Logan sat at a table, working through the task. The 8-year-olds alternated between eureka moments and eye rolls.

With the Emerging Scholars curriculum, “the kids can actually grapple with the material and don’t have to worry about time constraints,” Eastman said.

Eastman said she also taught David, a methodical thinker, and Tayler, who’s quick on her feet, in the Emerging Scholars summer program. The two are, by traditional measures, average students in the classroom, she said, but they crave challenge.

The typical Emerging Scholar is “a kid who has not been challenged, has not been valued enough prior to this,” said Dennis Jutras, the coordinator of gifted and advanced learning for the Baltimore schools.

“In many ways, in many cases, this is the first time this student is being seen, given a voice and is being allowed to flourish.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Seeking Gifted Students in Untapped Places


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