L.A. schools on sharper lookout for gifted students — and they find them


Second-grader Emariye Louden would debate just about anything with his mother from the time he could talk. At 4, he knew his letters, spelled his name and memorized birthdays and phone numbers.

His mother figured he was smart, but odds are that until recently no one at his school would have singled him out for special attention.

Few students were being recognized as academically gifted at 99th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, a common scenario at campuses that enroll low-income minority students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

That’s beginning to change.

Last year, Emariye’s school and three others began testing nearly all second-graders to see who qualified as gifted. And they’re finding many students like Emariye.

The initiative was launched by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages a group of historically low-performing campuses on behalf of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“It’s allowed us to ramp up our expectations for children,” said Angela Bass, the nonprofit’s superintendent of instruction. At many schools, “we’ve missed the fact that our children are really talented. We need to make sure our teachers know that, our parents know that and our students know they are gifted.”

The year before the partnership took over in 2008, L.A. Unified found no gifted students at 99th Street. Last year the new management, working with district psychologists, found 13. At Ritter Elementary, the number went from two to eight; at Figueroa Street, from zero to 21; at Sunrise, from six to 32.

The goal is to recognize and nurture students of exceptional ability, but there’s also a broader message: Poor urban children have just as much potential as students elsewhere. And habitually overlooking their talents can hold them back, making them less likely to apply for or get into college-track honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Across the district, white students — 8.4% of L.A. Unified’s enrollment — make up about 23% of those designated as gifted. And Asians — 3.6% of the district — make up 16.4% of the district’s gifted students.

Most students come to be tested through one of two routes: A parent requests it or the school takes the initiative. And one or both haven’t been happening at many schools like 99th Street, which is 75% Latino and 25% black.

Part of the reason, said L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, is “insidious racism.” But another crucial factor in Los Angeles, he said, is that programs for gifted students have long been associated with integration efforts. Getting the “gifted” label made middle-class whites and Asians eligible for special programs designed as incentives for them to remain in public school.

Cortines, who came to the district in 2008, wants to identify as gifted at least 6% of students at every school. Administrators began targeting some schools, an effort that quickly saw results. The number of black students identified as gifted increased more than 9% over a six-month period.

Last month, Cortines and Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott pushed harder, ordering that all second-graders be tested next year.

School districts get no extra dollars for identifying higher numbers of gifted students. Instead, the state allots funding for the gifted based on district enrollment. For L.A. Unified, that allotment has been shrinking, to about $4.6 million this year. Most of that has gone to IQ testing, administrative costs and training for teachers. About $25 per gifted student has gone to schools, officials said.

The ongoing budget crisis actually created a disincentive for finding gifted students. As partial compensation for cutting school funding, the state allowed districts to use the gifted-student money for any purpose.

In its effort to identify the gifted, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools spent $12,000, mostly for the expanded testing and clerical support. At 99th Street, the nonprofit also provides an instructional specialist who manages the school’s program for gifted students.

At partnership schools, district psychologists used an IQ test that tends to yield better results for students with limited academic experience or other impediments.

Proponents say gifted students need particular attention, like disabled students or those who don’t speak English. Gifted children can reach impressive intellectual heights when given the right program at the right time, advocates say.

Beyond-the-ordinary experiences are especially important for students from low-income families, who often have less access to activities outside of school, educators said.

Nearly all 99th Street students are poor; 4 in 10 are learning English, and a third will move in or out of the school during the year.

Programs for gifted students include additional activities in their regular classes as well as challenging experiences outside of class. For the gifted students at 99th Street, instructional specialist Desiree Manuel has arranged a field trip to the Getty Center, an interview with a scientist and a project identifying campus trees.

There’s also a benefit to being recognized as smart, said Tynesha Warren, Emariye’s mother.

“In the second grade Emariye now has something not everybody has,” said Warren, a medical assistant. “And it’s going to follow him for the rest of his life. It could expand his life and open doors. It gives him the opportunity to be noticed.”

Warren’s mother, Iris Barrett, said her daughter didn’t have that type of opportunity.

“With my children, if they were gifted, they were not recognized and that makes them say, ‘Why do I have to make an A? Nobody recognizes me. Nobody sees me.’ And they start slacking off. We have to strive to make our kids feel important enough about themselves,” said Barrett.

Emariye’s father is in prison in Mississippi, but his mother and grandmother were on hand to assist in the school’s garden for a recent meeting of the 99th Street botany club, which Emariye founded.

“We’re here to plant nice fruits and vegetables for the lunch,” Emariye explained on the crisp, bright morning. “Because I was wondering: The lunch ladies might feel a little bad that they have to buy stuff every time. So why not help and plant things in our garden rather than spend good money?”

The students eagerly dispersed to tend the garden and harvest fruit.

“You’ve got to look at it and see if it’s green anywhere,” Emariye counseled a classmate who was trying to determine if a lemon was ripe.

“This one’s excellent,” said third-grader Lexy Ramirez, 8, whose mother, a former high school teacher, was standing nearby. “I got a juicy one.”

The gifted students of 99th Street typically benefit from at least one involved family member.

Bass said it’s important to build on these good beginnings because the school system has missed many such opportunities. But she also acknowledged that turning around struggling Los Angeles schools isn’t possible without unlocking the potential of all students, whether or not they pass a litmus test to be classified as gifted.

Aspirations seem unlimited for the gifted students of 99th Street.

Lexy’s interest is veterinary medicine, “because I love animals even if they’re bad animals. Like the animals that eat plants that we want to eat.”

Emariye wants to be like “the great Martin Luther King,” though he also confided: “I’ve been loving math since I was 6.”