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‘Finally finding our babies’: How Richardson schools are making their gifted classes more diverse

A revamped identification process is showing signs of progress. There’s still ways to go.

Teacher Lulu Walston explained the day’s assignment to a small group of elementary-schoolers in her Zoom class: Research a system, uncover a problem and devise a solution.

“That is our goal,” she told them, “our big idea.”

In some ways, the class is itself a reflection of a system trying to fix a problem that has long vexed public schools: Too few Black, Latino and low-income children are selected for gifted and talented programs. Like school districts across the country, Richardson ISD struggles to match the demographics of these advanced classes with the racially and economically diverse student body it serves.

In recent years, Richardson revamped its process for identifying students for advanced classes and has captured more kids in elementary schools that serve mostly low-income families, said Monica Simonds, the district’s director of advanced learning and services. It’s showing signs of progress, including in Walston’s class at Mark Twain Elementary.

Across the district, Simonds said, there’s a sense of, “you’re finally finding our babies.”

That’s not always the case for many school districts.

A study from Purdue University’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute found that the United States overlooks more gifted students than it identifies. Students who attend predominantly poor schools are identified at 58% the rate of those enrolled in wealthier schools.

Research has long shown that white, Asian and resourced students are disproportionately more likely to be identified for gifted classes, as educators or parents are often key to proactively tapping kids for such programs. The persistent inequity has pushed school districts, like New York City, to consider eliminating these programs.

Texas educators are taking steps — small and large — to reevaluate gifted programming. In Frisco ISD, for example, officials eliminated Saturday testing for students, removing a barrier for those who don’t have available transportation on the weekend. At the University of North Texas, professors are working to train future teachers on how to spot giftedness in diverse groups of students.

“Change has to come not just from one place but from a bunch of places,” UNT professor Jaret Hodges said.

Leveling the playing field

In Richardson, Black, Hispanic and low-income students continue to be underrepresented in such programs. The district’s equity policy calls on educators to tackle this.

One way RISD tries to level the playing field is by testing every second- and sixth-grader in the district for gifted potential. Many experts consider such a universal screening a best practice — albeit one that can be cost-prohibitive for districts. Without this tool, some districts instead rely on a parent or a teacher to refer children.

But not all parents are aware of these programs or know how to navigate the system. Screening all students also addresses concerns that implicit bias could cause a teacher to look at a Black, Latino or poor child and not consider him or her ready for advanced classes.

Universal screening alone wasn’t enough, Simonds said. Last year, Richardson ISD officials tweaked how students qualify for the gifted program. Before the change, a child had to score in the top 5% nationally in two areas, compared with other students who took the Cognitive Abilities Test.

Some researchers equate that to only letting students onto the soccer team if they’re “All-American caliber,” rather than just standouts within their school. Judging students based on how their scores stack up to others across the country doesn’t take into account their experiences and what obstacles — or advantages — may be tied to their ZIP code.

Gifted education has traditionally “ignored that context,” said Texas A&M professor Karen Rambo-Hernandez.

RISD students are now “found” in three ways: They can hit the 95th percentile based on national standards or when compared to other students who attend their school. Additionally, they can be compared to other students in the district who fit the same characteristics, such as being an English learner or coming from a low-income family.

This practice — referred to as using local or building-level norms — has gained traction. Experts say it can be key in large, diverse districts like Richardson, which enrolls roughly 40,000 students.

It helped Richardson officials find Aydin Franco, a 9-year-old Latino fourth-grader at Mark Twain.

Aydin loves taking on “future adult problems” in his gifted class. When his mom asks him about school each evening, he gets especially talkative on Thursdays — the day he has Zoom class with Walston.

Shani Leon, his mother, found out Aydin qualified for advanced classes via a letter sent home from school. She hadn’t heard much about the system beforehand. After Aydin took the universal test, the new identification process flagged him as a fit.

Even amid COVID-19, he’s thrived in the class. He went all-in on a recent project to create a restaurant — he chose a food truck — where students had to build the budget, stock the inventory and adapt to curveballs in the industry.

“I like to challenge myself,” he said.

Aydin Franco, 9, with his family, mother Shani Leon and sister Layla Franco, 7, outside their home in Richardson, on March 26, 2021. Aydin is one of the students identified as gifted through Richardson ISD's new process.
Aydin Franco, 9, with his family, mother Shani Leon and sister Layla Franco, 7, outside their home in Richardson, on March 26, 2021. Aydin is one of the students identified as gifted through Richardson ISD's new process. (Ben Torres)

More work

Elementary schools in Richardson with large populations of students from low-income families — referred to as Title I schools — all saw the percentage of second-graders identified as gifted increase last year.

Skyview Elementary — where almost every child comes from a family struggling financially — went from having roughly 3% of second-graders identified to 8%. Another Title I elementary school, Aikin, jumped from 1% to nearly 10%.

Still, large gaps remain across RISD. Last year, nearly 4,000 of the district’s students were served in the gifted program. About 60% were white, though such students make up less than one-third of the district’s population.

While about 39% of RISD’s students are Hispanic and about 22% are Black, those student groups made up about 20% and 7% of those in gifted classes, respectively.

One-fifth of students in the gifted program came from economically disadvantaged families.

It’s an improvement from when Simonds took over the department a decade ago. Back then, nearly three-quarters of the students in the gifted program were white and just 13% came from poor families.

Simonds is upfront about challenges but determined: “We have more work to do.”

The Texas Education Agency’s gifted education plan states that districts should identify youngsters who are “advanced in relation to students of similar age, experience, or environment.” But the agency does not collect data on how many of the state’s more than 1,000 districts utilize local norms or how many implement universal screening.

It will take time before it’s clear how much of a difference RISD’s new approach makes. COVID-19 disruptions — and related enrollment drops — also make it difficult to assess progress.

But a recent study, co-authored by A&M’s Rambo-Hernandez, shows the potential of relying on local norms.

Using a massive data set from 10 states, it found that when the criteria for gifted was set at the top 5% in a school, rather than in a national pool, Black student representation increased 300% in math. For Latino students, it increased 170%. The analysis found similarly large gains in reading.

“Many schools draw their students from local neighborhood attendance zones that commonly are segregated by income, race, and ethnicity,” the study authors wrote. “By identifying talent in every building, gifted populations get closer to mirroring the larger student population.”

Elsewhere, the idea has been controversial among some Asian and white parents who believe the methodology could make it less likely for their children to qualify. The research did bear out some of those concerns.

Should districts use a combination of both national and building norms, students aren’t at risk of “losing” eligibility, the study found. While that model had a less dramatic impact on reducing disproportionality, it did increase the number of Black and Latino students identified.

This “compromise” approach identifies the largest number of students, which likely means districts would need to devote more staff and resources to their gifted programs.

That played out in Richardson, where schools with wealthier student populations also saw increases in the percentage of second-graders identified last year.

Using local norms isn’t a silver bullet for addressing all the systemic causes of why some groups of students are underrepresented in gifted classes, the researchers cautioned.

Mike Bray is an advanced learning teacher based at Skyview, a Title I school where roughly 30 languages are spoken in students’ homes. In the past, he said, it probably wouldn’t have made sense for him to work full time at the school, given how few students were identified for gifted classes. But that’s changing.

His presence also sends a broader message, said principal Katrina Collins. Often, a school like hers might get assigned a behavior specialist. Putting an advanced learning teacher on campus shows, she said, “this is not just a behavior campus,” but a place where exceptional students can thrive.

As the makeup of gifted classes shifts, teachers are adapting.

When Walston launched into the activity about opening a restaurant — the unit Aydin loved so much — she realized that some of her students had never eaten in one. Those students are exceptionally bright, Walston said, with great ideas to contribute.

They just didn’t have the same exposure.

“Richardson has changed,” she said, “and I’m glad that this program is changing with it.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

Talia Richman, Staff writer. Talia is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab. A Dallas native, she attended Richardson High School and graduated from the University of Maryland. She previously covered schools and City Hall for The Baltimore Sun.

talia.richman@dallasnews.com @talirichman
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