A Question of Balance : Districts Under Pressure to Identify Gifted Minority Students

Times Staff Writer

During a full day of enriched studies, a group of elementary school students from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District took time out recently to talk about what it means to be "gifted."

"To be gifted means you have a special talent," Edan said. "You are different from the other children in school. It's a privilege because you are smarter. You understand things better and you don't have to work as hard as other people. It's a very special honor."

"It means you are different," Shelbi echoed.

"People look up to you as a leader," Sylvia said. "When they have a problem, they usually come to you."

"Sometimes it's a lot of pressure," Pete added .

The students talking in the yard at Will Rogers Elementary School are among the brightest in the district, with high grades and IQ scores of 130 and above.

They are all bright, but they have something else in common. Most are white, from middle- and upper-middle-class families and attend schools in the more affluent sections of town. And that presents a problem for the school district.

'Something Is Wrong'

"I don't think we do a good job of identifying (gifted) children," school board member Richard Williams said. "If you believe, as I do, that true giftedness is distributed randomly across our population (without regard to race or culture) and then you get serious maldistribution, then something is wrong."

Williams said the tests used to detect giftedness often measure skills nurtured primarily in middle-class environments. "Because of the long history of racism in our country, the middle class is mostly white and that kind of imbalance we have to pay attention to," he said. Children from non-English-speaking families have an even greater disadvantage on tests written in English.

As a result, Latinos make up 23.3% of the district population, but 4% of the gifted program; blacks represent 8.4% of the school district and 2% of the gifted population. Asians constitute 6.9% of the district and 12% of the gifted program and whites account for 61.3% of the district and 82% of the program. Nearly 10% of the 10,000 students in the district participate in the gifted program.

The problem is not unique to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. School officials throughout the state are under pressure to come up with new ways of finding gifted minority students.

The state Department of Education, which provided $18.5 million to operate gifted programs for 200,000 students this year, has told a number of districts to improve the ethnic balance in those programs. The San Diego and Pasadena Unified School districts have been singled out for being unbalanced.

Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes (D-Los Angeles) recently introduced a bill, AB 1232, which would provide money to help districts develop tests to identify under-represented minority groups. The bill would also provide additional money for gifted programs.

The Santa Monica-Malibu district's Gifted and Talented Education advisory committee is exploring ways of improving minority enrollment.

To be identified as gifted in the Santa Monica-Malibu district a student must score above 125 or 130, depending on the version of the IQ test, and do well in statewide testing.

New Methods

The effort to identify gifted minority students focuses on finding new methods of testing to spot rapid learners, particularly if the child is from a limited-English-speaking household. The district, for example, is considering hiring a bilingual psychologist to help identify gifted Latino students.

In addition, teachers will be counseled on what to look for. Their recommendations are "very important," said Nancy Crawford, the district's coordinator of state and federal projects.

"You have to look for clues," Assistant Supt. Rita Esquivel said. "For example, if a child comes into a class speaking little English and picks up the language very quickly, then you know you have a bright child with a good facility for language." School officials will also consider the child's behavior. Does he ask numerous questions? Does he memorize rapidly? Is he competitive?

Crawford and Esquivel said that the district is also considering admitting some students on probation and reviewing their performance after a year.

"For most children we are close (to the proper balance), but for children with limited English we are not," Crawford said. "Hispanics and children from Iran who speak Farsi at home are under-represented."

Board member Robert Holbrook warned against mixing children who have been identified as gifted by different means. He said the district should consider a separate program for students identified in ways other than standard written tests. "It would be difficult if you put them in a think tank and the kids can't communicate," he said.

Advocates of the gifted program believe that today's gifted are tomorrow's leaders. "Many of the leadership positions in major industries and jobs of greater responsibility go to the most successful students," Crawford said.

But advocates also say that bright youngsters who are not directed to special programs frequently get bored and frustrated with school and, in some cases, are viewed as extremely poor students with little potential.

"The underlying issue is whether or not the public school system can provide a challenging education for every single child," Santa Monica-Malibu board member Peggy Lyons said. "And that means everything from a child who is mentally handicapped to one who is mentally gifted."

Officials say they have already improved the quality of the district's gifted programs by consolidating them. In the past, there were more programs for gifted children at schools in the more affluent sections of Santa Monica and Malibu.

An exploratory center was established at Will Rogers Elementary School for 270 students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Under the pilot program, each student went to the Rogers campus nine times for a full day of classes involving critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. The students also took seminars in how to develop self-esteem and leadership skills.

"The purpose of the program was not to take the place of their regular studies but to help them develop lifelong learning processes," said Pat Samarge, the district's gifted coordinator.

As part of the program the students wrote and produced their own commercials using video tape equipment. Several students produced a commercial advertising coffins and using the slogan, "People are just dying to get in them."

They also were given word problems such as, "What is the greatest number of pieces you can cut a cake into by making four straight cuts with a knife?" (The answer is 14.) The children also built a self-supporting structure out of straws, operated computers and took a trip to Santa Monica College's Planetarium.

"The program has been a major success," Crawford told the board Monday night. School officials have asked the Board of Education to provide $50,000 to expand it to 20 sessions next year. The district receives another $55,000 from the state.

The program "made learning fun," said Andrea Lee, a student in the gifted program at Edison.

Holbrook said the program helps the district prevent private schools from poaching some of its best talent.

"Some of our students are actively recruited by private schools and are being given scholarships to go. That is a problem," Holbrook said. "We did a survey a year and a half ago and we discovered that about 9% of the population of the district had school-age children. Eight percent of the population send their children to public school and 1% send them elsewhere. I feel that our gifted program is going to help us a lot."

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