Gifted Children Learn With Their Peers

Times Staff Writer

The students in Beverly Glassford's fifth- and sixth-grade class gathered in small groups last week to discuss advertising techniques used to hustle products to unwary customers. The students clearly had no trouble spotting the gimmicks.

For example, one student suggested to the class that an ad for a carpet "smart enough to pass a school test" made no literal sense. "How can a carpet be smart?" she asked.

Madison Avenue moguls are probably lucky that Glassford's students at the Eagle Rock Elementary School's Highly Gifted Magnet Center are among the less than 1% of the population with IQs of 145 or higher. That score is the minimum to qualify for the district's magnet school program for the highly gifted.

"Face it, these kids learn more easily than other children," said Glassford, who has taught highly gifted students since 1968. "They can develop abstract reasoning at a younger age. . . . They respect honesty and you cannot put them off with wishy-washy answers."

Intelligence Tested

The intelligence of the 56 highly gifted students at Eagle Rock Elementary School, and the 124 highly gifted junior-high students who attend nearby Eagle Rock High School, was tested by district psychologists after their abilities were noticed by teachers at regular schools. Then they were offered the chance to take part in the voluntary program for extraordinarily intelligent children.

The 21-year-old program at the elementary school in Eagle Rock is one of four such programs in the Los Angeles district for gifted second- through sixth-graders. The junior-high program at Eagle Rock High School is one of only two programs for seventh- through ninth-grade students. There is no special high school program for highly intelligent students, although the district is reviewing a proposal for a program at Eagle Rock High School.

Collectively, these 180 second- through ninth-graders are by most measurements the best and the brightest of the nearly 579,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The students travel by bus from throughout the district to the Eagle Rock schools. Some come from housing projects, others from upper-class neighborhoods. Some are recent immigrants and others are from longtime Los Angeles families.

They share an innate curiosity and a thirst for intellectual challenge, say their teachers. To have finally found classmates who are like themselves in that respect is a great relief.

"Many felt different, and in many cases they had been ostracized by their peers," said Elsie Yoshii, coordinator of the two Eagle Rock centers for the highly gifted. Sometimes when children are so bright, she said, "they are considered strange to an average class, which can cause them to become introverts. Here, these kids, having a common base--intelligence--they can talk to each other on an intellectual level and still go out and play."

The gifted Eagle Rock elementary students are divided into two groups: Glassford's class for fifth- and sixth-graders, and Joyce Takahashi's class for second-, third- and fourth-graders.

During a recent morning session, Takahashi's students, ages 5 to 10, were conducting an experiment with water drops--observing and describing what shapes drops take on different surfaces.

Creative, Scientific

The students describe and draw the shapes they see, said Takahashi, both as a creative writing exercise and an introduction to scientific experiments.

"I've seen oval shapes and circles so far," said David Iniguez, 8, of south Los Angeles. He said he likes attending the magnet program better than his old school because "they give us more work." His favorite subjects are math and animal science.

After lunch the students are given time to read materials they bring from home, which on a day last week ranged from books, such as E. B. White's "Charlotte's Web" to Mad magazine. "We have some students who don't get a lot of time to read at home," Takahashi explained. "I think if you let them read what they want to read, they will start to enjoy it."

The social studies book used by the second- through fourth-graders is written for fifth-grade students, and the history topic for the afternoon was a review of 17th-Century European explorers of the New World.

Generally her students are at least one grade ahead in their studies, Takahashi said. They are given more individual attention and the pace of learning is much faster than in normal classrooms.

Because the program for the gifted is financed from the district's voluntary integration program, the classes are required to have an ethnic mix of 60% minority and 40% Anglo students. A district spokesman said the racial balance requirement has been satisfied so far without keeping any students out of the program.

The recent influx of Latino and Asian immigrants, who do not speak English as a native language, have made it more difficult for teachers in regular classrooms to spot the highly gifted and recommend them for testing, Yoshii said.

Language Barrier

"With the limited-English-speaking students, we have to recognize if there is a special intelligence behind the language barrier," Yoshii said.

In some students, however, it is easy to recognize. Carlos Perdomo, 9, arrived from El Salvador two years ago. With the help of his father, who borrowed books on English from a local library, Perdomo said he learned to speak the language in a month.

"I felt strange when I first came to this country," said Perdomo, who lives near downtown. "But my father made me write 1,000 word sentences to learn English," stringing words together in long phrases that filled notebook pages for practice, he said. "I like science, social studies, English, reading and math. But, most of all, I like lunch."

The enthusiasm for class work among Takahashi's and Glassford's students, who wave their arms frantically and nearly beg to give answers, is matched by their enthusiasm for lunch and recess.

'Not Miniature Adults'

"The students have regular children's problems," said Glassford. "When they don't do their homework, they have the same kinds of excuses. They get into fights and arguments. After lunch, they come to me with complaints about who did what to whom on the playground. They are not miniature adults."

The purpose of the programs is to provide intellectual challenges for gifted students while allowing them to remain with others their age, rather than having them skip grades and wind up with older, more mature, students, Yoshii said. At the elementary school, the highly gifted students and the regular students share the playground during lunch and participate together in extracurricular activities.

The reactions of parents to their young prodigies range from those who expect high achievement to others who are simply in awe of their children, Yoshii said. All the parents, however, support the program's requirement of a minimum of 2 1/2 hours of homework each night, she said.

Program Moved

Once the students graduate from sixth grade, most transfer to the junior-high program two blocks away at Eagle Rock High School. The magnet center for gifted junior-high-school students was moved there two years ago from Thomas Starr King Junior High School in Hollywood so that students could take advanced high school courses. Eagle Rock High School is the only secondary school in the district that has regular junior- and senior-high-school students on one campus.

About a fourth of the gifted students will be prepared to study calculus by the time they finish the ninth grade, said math teacher Oak Norton, who teaches beginning and advanced algebra, geometry and trigonometry in the junior high.

Some students will have received college credits for history before the 10th grade by taking advanced placement tests, said social studies teacher Kailim Toy. He said he begins his courses in history and government each year by telling his students: "I want you to ask me questions that I cannot answer."

'Stimulating and Exhausting'

English teacher Sara McKinney said teaching the highly gifted is both "stimulating and exhausting."

Especially challenging to McKinney are students such as eighth-grader Lap Wai Wong, who arrived from mainland China only three years ago. The young Chinatown-area resident is one of the program's brightest math students but he spoke no English when he arrived.

During a recent class, he delivered an improvised 2 1/2-minute speech on why it is wrong to insult people that, following the rules of the assignment, included rhetorical devices and literary allusions.

Toy said Wong is a good example of a student who is academically qualified to begin college as a math major, but would have trouble adjusting to college social life. "He's taking trigonometry and math analysis, but emotionally he is a very young boy," Toy said. "He is not emotionally ready for college, but our program can give him his college math."

Mix With Other Students

Although for most of their academic day the highly gifted junior-high students have separate classes, they take physical education and elective classes with the other students, and some participate in team sports.

The consensus among the teachers is that the students mix well with the rest of the campus. The Eagle Rock High School's ninth-grade class president and class secretary are both members of the highly gifted program.

Gabe Soria of South-Central Los Angeles, a gregarious, 12-year-old seventh-grader in the program for the gifted, said he has just joined the high school ski club. He wants to be an aerospace engineer.

"In another school I wouldn't be able to learn about the Roman Empire or economics like I can from Mr. Toy," Soria said. "There's a lot of opportunities here."

No Records

The district does not keep records of what happens to the gifted students once they graduate from junior high school. But Yoshii said that, based on information she has, most apply to magnet high schools in the district that offer specialized instruction in the arts, sciences or math, and at least 80% attend college.

"We try to keep in contact with some of them informally," Yoshii said. "I know of one student who went to UCLA and two others who began Cal State Los Angeles instead of going to high school."

Some in the program have done nothing special with their lives and simply became highly gifted underachievers, Yoshii said.

She said, "We try to express to our students that they have a gift, but it is what you do with that gift that makes the difference."

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