Dis­trict re­news fo­cus on gifted


The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL ALISON CHAN­DLER

Goal is to ‘meet needs of all young peo­ple’

When D.C. Schools Chan­cel­lor Kaya Hen­der­son came to the Dis­trict in 2007, there was no of­fice for gifted ed­u­ca­tion and no plan for serv­ing the city’s most tal­ented learn­ers. The school sys­tem was over­whelmed with work­ing to raise ba­sic skills for the large num­ber of strug­gling stu­dents.

The lack of stim­u­lat­ing Dis­trict class­rooms sent many par­ents look­ing for gifted or ad­vanced pro­grams in the sub­urbs, led them to move their chil­dren to char­ter schools or pri­vate schools, or prompted long com­mutes to schools in the city’s wealth­i­est Zip codes.

To com­bat such flight from the public school sys­tem, D.C. Public Schools is in­tro­duc­ing gifted pro­grams in its neigh­bor­hood schools, hop­ing to at­tract more tal­ented and mo­ti­vated stu­dents back to the sys­tem.

Hen­der­son cre­ated an of­fice of ad­vanced and en­riched in­struc­tion in 2012 and set goals for in­creas­ing the num­ber of stu­dents who per­form at the high­est level on city­wide tests, an ef­fort “to meet the needs of all young peo­ple,” she said.

The Dis­trict’s new com­mit­ment to ad­vanced in­struc­tion is part of an ap­peal to mid­dle-class fam­i­lies who are call­ing for more chal­leng­ing classes. It also re­flects a na­tional push to iden­tify and serve more low-in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents who have been un­der­rep­re­sented in gifted ed­u­ca­tion, a grow­ing well of un­tapped po­ten­tial as in­creas­ing num­bers of stu­dents live in poverty.

Just 3 per­cent of low-in­come fourth-graders across the coun­try scored “ad­vanced” in read­ing on the 2013 Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion Progress, com­pared with 14 per­cent of stu­dents from wealth­ier fam­i­lies. The gap is much wider in the Dis­trict — 2 per­cent com­pared with 26 per­cent— where mid­dle- and up­per­class fam­i­lies are of­ten headed by adults with ad­vanced de­grees and six-fig­ure in­comes.

Jordin McFad­den, an eighth­grader at Kelly Miller Mid­dle School in a high poverty neigh­bor­hood in North­east, re­called her first year at the school as “easy.” In math, her fa­vorite sub­ject, the class was learn­ing sim­ple, one-step equa­tions, and she used to speed through her work, then spend the rest of her time talk­ing to friends.

Then, last year, she joined a new “academy” within her school, where her teach­ers started in­tro­duc­ing lessons be­yond her grade level on ma­tri­ces and quadrat­ics and ge­om­e­try. Class work started spilling over into an hour of homework ev­ery night.

“They push us to do bet­ter,” said Jordin, who is plan­ning to go to Phelps ACE, an ap­pli­ca­tion high school, next year. “They tell us that life is not easy; you have to work hard.”

Many Wash­ing­ton-area sub­ur­ban school dis­tricts screen stu­dents from a young age and of­fer a range of gifted ser­vices start­ing in el­e­men­tary school. In New York and Chicago, thou­sands of 4-year-olds take stan­dard­ized tests in a highly com­pet­i­tive an­nual bid for ad­mis­sion to a range of gifted pro­grams that start in kinder­garten.

Such ap­proaches in­vite con­tro­versy be­cause they tend to re­in­force per­va­sive racial dis­par­i­ties. Na­tion­ally, African Amer­i­can and His­panic stu­dents rep­re­sent just 10 per­cent and 16 per­cent of en­roll­ment in gifted pro­grams de­spite rep­re­sent­ing 19 per­cent and 25 per­cent of the stu­dent body in the dis­tricts that of­fer the pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 re­port by the U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

The Dis­trict has of­fered gifted ser­vices in fits and starts over the years, with spe­cial pro­grams of­fered in some schools or over the sum­mer, and vary­ing lev­els of sup­port from the cen­tral of­fice. At the high school level, top-per­form­ing stu­dents can com­pete for ad­mis­sion to se­lec­tive mag­net schools. But el­e­men­tary schools do not of­fer the kind of pull-out pro­grams or mag­net schools com­monly found in other dis­tricts. Teach­ers are trained to pro­vide en­rich­ment within the class­room to strong read­ers.

As it works to build gifted pro­grams now, the city is pur­su­ing a more flex­i­ble path for iden­ti­fy­ing stu­dents for ad­vanced classes and hop­ing to pro­vide ser­vices to as many stu­dents as pos­si­ble.

“We don’t want to fur­ther ex­ac­er­bate race or class dis­par­i­ties that ex­ist,” said Matthew Reif, direc­tor of ad­vanced and en­riched in­struc­tion for D.C. Public Schools.

The cor­ner­stone of their ef­forts is called the “school­wide en­rich­ment model,” pro­moted by Joseph Ren­zulli and Sally Reis, ed­u­ca­tion psy­chol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut. In­stead of iden­ti­fy­ing “gifted stu­dents,” the pro­gram aims to iden­tify “gifted be­hav­iors” in stu­dents, such as above-av­er­age abil­i­ties, cre­ativ­ity and mo­tiva- tion, and to cul­ti­vate those abil­i­ties.

The first en­rich­ment pro­grams started in mid­dle schools, where the school sys­tem is try­ing to re­verse a steady de­par­ture of fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing many that turn to high-per­form­ing char­ter schools that of­fer rig­or­ous course work as a main sell­ing point. Of­fi­cials also hope to build a big­ger pipe­line for a grow­ing num­ber of Ad­vanced Place­ment of­fer­ings in high schools.

At Kelly Miller, stu­dents fill out an in­ter­est sur­vey at the be­gin­ning of the year. Then the school’s en­rich­ment re­source teacher, Feli­cia Messina-D’Haiti, de­signs mini cour­ses for small groups of stu­dents that match their in­ter­ests.

Such as when four stu­dents sat at com­put­ers dur­ing a re­cent class writ­ing sto­ries about su­per­heroes with spe­cial pow­ers and other tales.

“All of us in here, we are all read­ers, and our vo­cab­u­lary is high,” said J’An­dre Sin­gle­ton, a sev­enth-grader.

An­other group, with a shared in­ter­est in fine arts, came in next and made pre­sen­ta­tions about re­search they had con­ducted on top­ics they chose rang­ing from “What causes fear?” to “A his­tory of Ice Ages.”

At Kelly Miller, 66 per­cent of stu­dents scored be­low pro­fi­cien- cy on the city­wide stan­dard­ized read­ing test last year, and 42 per­cent scored be­low pro­fi­ciency on the math test. But more than half of the stu­dents were tapped for en­riched in­struc­tion.

For chil­dren from wealthy fam­i­lies, op­por­tu­ni­ties for en­rich­ment come in many forms: sum­mer camps and trips abroad and ex­po­sure to more vo­cab­u­lary words at the din­ner ta­ble. For poor chil­dren, school is more likely to be their main out­let for stim­u­la­tion.

“Kids who have ad­van­tages keep get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. Th­ese kids sky­rocket be­cause of all their re­sources,” prin­ci­pal Ab­dul­lah Zaki said. “A high-po­ten­tial kid in a less stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ment tends to plateau.”

De­spite its re­cent ex­pan­sion of en­rich­ment, the Dis­trict got an F this year in a new re­port card by the Jack Kent Cooke Foun­da­tion rat­ing statewide pol­icy ini­tia­tives to serve low-in­come gifted stu­dents. The city was found to lack poli­cies pro­mot­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion — such as al­low­ing early en­trance to kinder­garten or let­ting mid­dle school stu­dents take high school classes — which re­search shows can ben­e­fit some stu­dents.

Zaki also has started to pur­sue ac­cel­er­a­tion in his own school through the “academy,” which clus­ters stu­dents in one wing of the school with one class of sixth-graders, one of sev­en­th­graders and two eighth-grade classes. Stu­dents who demon­strate abil­ity or mo­ti­va­tion spend the day with sim­i­lar stu­dents pur­su­ing more ad­vanced course work.

The prin­ci­pal said he did not think ev­ery­one could be served well in a main­stream class.

“Peo­ple like to say a teacher can teach the re­ally high-per­form­ing kids and the re­ally low­per­form­ing kids at the same time,” he said. “In re­al­ity, they teach in the mid­dle.”

“When you fin­ish your work in class, what does the teacher give you?” he said. “More of the same, or go help Johnny, or go get a book from the li­brary.”

Kelly Miller, along with Hardy Mid­dle School, were the first D.C. schools to get a full-time en­rich­ment teacher. The pro­gram has since spread to three other mid­dle schools and a preschool through-eight-grade ed­u­ca­tion cam­pus. A hand­ful of el­e­men­tary schools also have in­vested funds in en­rich­ment train­ing.

Hardy, in up­per Ge­orge­town, en­rolls just 15 per­cent of its in-bound­ary fam­i­lies and has been mak­ing a push to at­tract more neigh­bor­hood fam­i­lies, as well as to bet­ter serve many of the stu­dents who are mo­ti­vated to travel across the city for a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion.

Many cur­rent and po­ten­tial par­ents at the school have been call­ing for more gifted pro­grams. Soon af­ter the Dis­trict an­nounced the en­rich­ment pro­gram, par­ents asked for fund­ing to ex­pand it. They were able to hire one ad­di­tional teacher, so one fo­cuses on science and an­other fo­cuses on the hu­man­i­ties.

On a spring af­ter­noon, stu­dents in a science elec­tive class worked in small groups on projects. Some were us­ing a kit to make elec­tri­cal cir­cuits with wires, tin­foil and Play-Doh. One stu­dent was pro­gram­ming a toy-sized robot to go through a maze, and a pair of stu­dents were on a lap­top us­ing mod­ern foren­sic tools to col­lect ev­i­dence from a 19th-cen­tury crime scene in a vir­tual re­al­ity sleuthing game.

Down the hall in a hu­man­i­ties en­rich­ment class, stu­dents sat around two long ta­bles dis­cussing the ques­tion: Can cre­ativ­ity be taught? Last year, Hardy also in­tro­duced hon­ors classes, and this year it of­fered ge­om­e­try, a high-school-level course, for the first time.

Mar­cio Duf­fles, the pres­i­dent of Hardy’s PTO par­ent-teacher or­ga­ni­za­tion, said the ad­vanced cour­ses were a fac­tor when he en­rolled his son three years ago. Duf­fles said his older son also at­tended Hardy nearly a decade ago, and he has no­ticed a dif­fer­ence.

“I would say the level of aca­demic in­struc­tion that my younger boy got at Hardy is at least one quan­tum level higher,” he said.

“They push us to do bet­ter. They tell us that life is not easy; you have to work hard.”

Jordin McFad­den, an eighth-grader in an en­rich­ment pro­gram at Kelly Miller Mid­dle School in the Dis­trict


D.C. Schools Chan­cel­lor Kaya Hen­der­son cre­ated an of­fice of ad­vanced and en­riched in­struc­tion in 2012.

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