Across the nation, school districts boast of the amazing students in their gifted and talented programs. Of course, depending on the district, including those across the Denver metro area, the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ carry different meanings. There are no hard and fast or uniform definitions.
Is a child who comes to school reading at a third-grade level more gifted or talented than one that doesn’t read at all but has amazing articulation? Or does a singing talent trump, say, a mechanically precocious child? Or, what if a child has all these abilities but isn’t identified as gifted or talented because it speaks a different language?
In a nation whose demographics are changing, pinpointing which students are gifted or talented has become an increasingly perplexing challenge, one rife with a lack of uniformity or standards. And there may be no group more at risk for misidentification or non-identification than Hispanic children and especially those who don’t yet speak English.
“It does bother me. And we are trying to fix it,” said Dr. Blanche Kapushion, Director of Jefferson County’s Schools Gifted and Talented program in acknowledging the serious holes in the Jeffco net designed to catch and identify intellectually and artistically gifted children. But while the problem of identifying potential gifted and talented students is serious, it isn’t unique in Jeffco. Almost every district that has a gifted and talented program is facing similar challenges, especially as they come to serve a growing Hispanic population.
As the largest school district in the state with nearly 86,000 students, and a growing Hispanic and immigrant student population, Jeffco is trying to identify new and better ways of solving this conundrum. Hispanic student growth in the district has jumped nearly 25 percent since 2005. Today, nearly one in four Jeffco K-12 students is Hispanic. But the percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in the district’s ‘gifted and talented’ program doesn’t nearly reflect this trend.
“We are in the midst of trying something new,” says Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, Director of Jeffco’s ESL program. Testing more than 5,000 non-English speaking students — and not only native Spanish speakers — for placement in gifted and talented programs has been daunting for the district. Baldwin-Johnson called it a test of resources, budget and manpower. “We no longer use that test.”
The district also tried “a summer school between gifted and talented and ESL” a number of years ago in an effort to boost its gifted and talented enrollment, but has quietly shelved it as it searches for another solution.
In Jeffco, nine-thousand of the district’s students have been identified as gifted and talented. Those identified rank in the “95th percentile of all students that have been tested,” Kapushion said. The students are placed in one of the fifteen Jeffco elementary, middle or high schools aimed at nurturing their intellect or gift. But just because a student scores at the upper limits of the math test, doesn’t necessarily mean he or she would be math or science-tracked.
“It (testing) doesn’t mean you love math,” Kapushion said. If the student says “I don’t care about numbers, what I want to do is write poetry, we’ll work to get them into what is appropriate.” Jeffco’s gifted and talented program encompasses programs that include music, theater, science and mathematics; the disciplines that will challenge a student and best capture their intellectual strengths.
The district understands that it has fallen painfully short of meeting the challenge of identifying and placing high potential Hispanic students in its gifted and talented programs. Only 908 Hispanic students are currently in the program, a figure Kapushion calls “way underrepresented.” The district is scrambling to improve in this area but so far has found method of solving the disparity.
Denver Public Schools, on the other hand, has been remarkably successful in identifying and placing high potential Hispanic students. The most recent DPS figures on Hispanic gifted and talented show that 44.3 percent of all DPS in the district’s gifted and talented program are Hispanic. DPS also has a rigorous program of early testing for both non-verbal assessment and creativity assessment for students between second and fifth grades.
Jeffco acknowledges that with nearly one in four students in its classrooms being Hispanic that it is facing a serious challenge with a lack of Hispanic students being channeled into its gifted and talented program. And even though native born Hispanic students are still being identified for the prestigious program, the situation is more problematic for Spanish language only immigrant children. It’s a challenge, admits Kapushion “but the gap is closing.” Jeffco no longer relies on “a single test or data” and that minimizes the language barrier.
Kapushion says the district has pledged major resources into its effort to identify as many gifted and talented Hispanic students as it can. It evaluates all students for high achievement potential at the second grade. And it is also hearing from Hispanic parents who want to maximize their children’s potential.
“I’m angry and I hope this makes a lot of other people angry,” Kapushion said. “We’re not doing enough. We’re missing the mark,” in serving a growing population in Jeffco. “The message needs to get out.”
Kapushion, a former classroom teacher and school principal, says the mark of a good school district is to make sure that every student and family is served. But right now, the facts show that there is a disparity in the way the district is serving its Hispanics students.
Hispanic parents, including those of immigrant students, Kapushion said, want the same things for their children as all parents. “They want their kids to be challenged, given extra academic exposure,” she said. It’s a myth, she said, to think otherwise. “It will take time but we can do better.” The former teacher and principal says, “there is a sense of urgency to do better.”