Durham County

Schools are fighting to end bias in identifying gifted students. But is it working?

‘Counted Out’ explores why low-income children are often left out of gifted classes in NC

In North Carolina public schools, low-income children who score at the top level on end-of-grade math tests aren't getting an equal chance at gifted classes, a News & Observer/Charlotte Observer investigation reveals. In this video, we explain how
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In North Carolina public schools, low-income children who score at the top level on end-of-grade math tests aren't getting an equal chance at gifted classes, a News & Observer/Charlotte Observer investigation reveals. In this video, we explain how

What makes an academically or intellectually gifted student?

When you ask teachers, the traits they cite can sometimes block a lot of bright students from inclusion in academically and intellectually gifted programs, says one Durham educator.

“They’re looking for the very quiet child who’s organized, who always turns in their assignments and who makes perfect grades,” said Laura Parrott, advanced academics coordinator for the Durham Public Schools.

Parrott said DPS is working to change that kind of thinking to increase opportunities for students — blacks and Hispanics in particular — to be included in the district’s Advanced and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) Program.

“That really does prevent that child who needs to move around, who’s very creative and needs to talk [from being considered for AIG],” Parrott said. “That’s part of the problem. They do look for the child who has those perfect grades in every subject and what we really have to talk about is the child who is gifted in math but has a learning disability in reading, so how are we making sure that child is not being overlooked?”

Damian Ochoa Obregon and his math teacher at Southern High School in Durham discuss his mistaken exclusion from a more advanced math class.

The recently released Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s report titled “Is There a Gifted Gap? Gifted Education in High Poverty Schools” found that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in academically gifted programs in schools all across America, but especially in high-poverty schools.

The institute is an education reform think tank with offices in Ohio and Washington, D.C. It reviewed national data on gifted programs in high-poverty schools, which are generally filled with black and brown students.

Here are the key findings in the Fordham Institute’s report about North Carolina:

▪  In North Carolina, 90.9 percent of traditional public schools have gifted programs, and 9.6 percent of their students participate in them.

▪  Students in low-poverty schools are more than three times more likely to participate in gifted programs than students in high-poverty schools.

▪  In North Carolina, only 5.1 percent of students at high-poverty schools with gifted programs participate in gifted education, and enrollment varies widely across racial groups in North Carolina’s high-poverty schools.

In DPS, nearly 80 percent of students are black and Hispanic. And about 48 percent of the students in AIG are black and Hispanic.

Parrot and Beth Cross, DPS’ advanced academic director, presented a report last June that also showed that black and Hispanic students in Durham Public Schools are enrolled in AIG courses at a higher percentage than their peers across the state.

The report was based on numbers from the 2015-16 school year, when 33.9 percent of students in AIG were black, 15.4 percent Hispanic and 41.4 percent white.

Linda Robinson, who teaches gifted children at Fox Road Elementary in Raleigh, says her students are bright, hard workers who can be overlooked because of barriers involving poverty and language.

It came on the heels of an investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, which found that high-achieving, low-income students across North Carolina are far less likely than their more-affluent peers to be placed in advanced or challenging classes.

Parrot and Cross have been invited to Raleigh to make a presentation about the district’s gifted program at a State Board of Education “special issues” session on Feb. 28 or March 1. Parrot said DPS and a few other districts with “proven programs, promising practices and emerging initiatives” have been invited to make presentations.

Bucking the norm

DPS and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are bucking the national trend as well as state norms, which also show minority students underrepresented in gifted programs.

In DPS, black students, who make up 46.7 percent of the district’s enrollment, made up 32.3 percent of the 5,621 students in the district’s AIG Program during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data is available. Hispanic students, 30.1 percent of DPS’ enrollment, made up 15.9 percent of students in AIG.

Meanwhile, white students, 18.6 percent of the district’s enrollment, comprised 42.2 percent of the students dentified as gifted.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) also has a higher percentage of black students –10.9 percent – and Hispanics – 11.24 percent – in gifted programs when compared to the state as a whole.

CHCCS has adopted a three-year AIG Plan that allows for students who achieve in the top 10 percent of their racial subgroup in grades 3-7 in achievement and aptitude assessments to be identified as gifted.

The percentage of black and Hispanic students in gifted programs in Durham far exceed those for North Carolina as a whole, which was identified in the Fordham Institute report as one 22 states where fewer than 5 percent of black and Hispanic students are in gifted programs compared with almost 10 percent of all the state’s students.

And in North Carolina schools with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher, only 3.1 percent of black and Hispanic students and 5.1 percent of all students were in gifted programs. That was among the nation’s lowest levels.

In DPS, 18 of 53 of the district’s schools have enrollments in which at least 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

A focused strategy in Durham

DPS leaders said they will continue to work to bring more black and Hispanic students into the AIG program even though the district’s numbers are better than many of its Tar Heel peers.

One major strategy has been training through DPS’ Office of Equity Affairs, led by Daniel Bullock, to help eliminate bias in decision-making about AIG selections. Finding strategies to counter bias was one of the recommendations from the Fordham report.

“With his [Bullock] office and the things he’s bringing to the conversations we’re having and the ideas he’s bringing to the district, he’s really educating a lot of people,” Cross said. “The awareness is the piece he wants to get out there because then, you start questioning yourself and start to look at things a little differently.”

Teacher bias, however, is less of an issue than in the past because because identification of potential AIG students is no longer based on teacher recommendations. However, teacher recommendations can be used to support a student being considered for AIG.

DPS also provides universal screening for all second graders each March as part of its strategy to cast a wider net for AIG students and so is providing AIG services for all students grades K-2.

“We believe the best way to continue to recognize students who have been underrepresented and to continue to find students who have potential, is to make sure that every child is worked with,” Parrot said.

She said AIG specialists go into all kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes to deliver “whole group” lessons based on a critical thinking skills linked to the subject matter students are learning.

“They watch for students who might not have teacher-pleasing behavior, maybe they’re squirmy in their seats, but they’ve got it and perhaps that teacher has not nominated them or recognized their potential because that behavior maybe masked it,” Parrott said.

She said that strategy is working.

“What we’ve found is the classroom teachers are now recognizing students who they may not have identified before as being students who are showing great potential,” Parrott said.

Other DPS strategies to increase black and Hispanic participation in AIG include a nurturing program for students in grades 3-8 who do not technically qualify for AIG but come close.

“They’re really receiving the same services,” Cross said. “They’re in the same classes.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

DPS diversity by race

▪  African American: 46.7%

▪  Hispanic/Latino: 30.1%

▪  White: 18.6%

▪  Multiracial: 2.8%

▪  Asian: 2.3%

▪  American Indian: 0.3%

▪  Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.1%