This article explains how one school district worked to best identify its under-represented gifted students.
Author: Smith, L. & Puttcamp, C.
Publications: Parenting for High Potential
Publisher: National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)
Year: March 2005
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Our children are growing up in a different world than we did. Information is now being generated at a dizzying rate. Technology permeates almost all aspects of our lives. And our nation’s population is becoming more and more diverse. Where does all this change leave us? As parents, how do we prepare our children for the future? What should we expect of our schools? What should we expect of our gifted programs?
We can get some guidance about these critical questions from historian Robert Hughes who said, “…in a globalized economy, the future lies with people who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines.” Hughes is speaking about the importance of understanding and interacting effectively with people who are different than ourselves-people who speak different languages, belong to different ethnic groups, engage in different cultural practices, and have different interests, skills and/or work styles. Seen in this context, achieving a state of “informed grace” requires an open mind and a willing heart. It requires an ability to listen to and learn from people whose perspectives have been shaped by different experiences and events. It requires the opportunity to discuss complex cultural issues and challenge conventional ways of viewing things. It also requires an understanding of what it means to be members of a global community and to have our social, economic, and environmental futures intertwined with one another.
Given the profound impact such understanding can have on our children’s future success, it is essential that we educate all children to become thoughtful and engaged citizens of the world. It also behooves us to broaden our view of giftedness to include students from diverse backgrounds who have the potential to contribute significantly to the cultural and intellectual resources of our nation.
IDENTIFYING GIFTED CHILDREN
Much has been written about what it means to be gifted and how to identify giftedness in children. Traditional practices have relied heavily on objective measures of abilities such as intelligence and achievement test scores. While these approaches have their merits and are successful at identifying giftedness in some students, they often “miss the mark” when it comes to identifying students with disabilities or from different economic, cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds. It is not difficult to understand why a student who speaks English as a second language might not demonstrate his or her true abilities on a test that is presented in English. Nor is it difficult to imagine why we should not administer a standard paper and pencil test to a student whose vision is significantly impaired. If our goal is to document the extent of students’ academic strengths, it makes sense to match assessments to the special needs of individual students. Parents rightly expect us to develop identification procedures that take individual circumstances into account. If we fail to do so, it will not be long before we lose credibility and jeopardize the support we greatly need for developing and maintaining programs for gifted and talented students.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
A one-size-fits-all approach to identification is no better than a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. Students differ and these differences need to be taken into account if gifted program practices are to be effective. Although this concept appears simple and straightforward, there are challenges in implementing an identification system that addresses different students’ backgrounds and characteristics. Key among these challenges is the reaction parents might have to change. Parents rightly question what impact a broadened identification system will have on their own families. Will their children be as likely to be included in the program? Will the program itself need to change because an expanded identification procedure is put into place?
These are difficult but understandable concerns. Parents, after all, are smart enough to know that new practices are not necessarily better practices. We are pleased to say that our district has managed to supplement our basic identification process with an approach that addresses a variety of needs and that has been well received by our community. We call that component, “TREASURES.”
TREASURES is an acronym for To Recruit, Educate, and Serve Under-Represented Exceptional Students. As its name implies, the component was developed in an effort to identify and serve gifted students whose talents might otherwise be overlooked. Such students might speak English as a second language, come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have identified disabilities, or come from a culturally diverse population. The impetus behind the component was simple. In our large suburban district, very few under-represented students were being identified for participation in the gifted program. Since we know that gifted students can be found in all populations, and that there is no one “right way’ to identify giftedness, we felt it was appropriate to step back and reexamine the identification practices we had put into place.
The TREASURES component of our identification process took two years of research, discussion, and training to develop. During that time, staff members studied programs that other districts had implemented, attended workshops on identifying gifted students, and worked with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to prepare guidelines and forms that would meet requirements of the state. They also involved parents in discussions about giftedness in diverse populations.
What does the program entail? The TREASURES identification process is built on a case study model. A case study model gives us the flexibility to collect and analyze a wide range of information and data in order to understand individual student’s academic abilities and needs. Built into the approach is a wider choice of standardized assessment tools, opportunities to meet individually with program applicants and their parents, teachers and/or counselors, and the option to evaluate student work or performances as possible indicators of giftedness. Collecting and processing input from these sources is more time intensive than traditional approaches to identification that rely heavily on prescribed test score analyses. However, for students who are disabled or face special challenges related to such issues as language or poverty, taking the time to obtain this information enables us to see beyond surface indicators and to make sound decisions about students’ learning capabilities and academic strengths.
IMPACT ON PROGRAMMING
Identification systems do not exist in isolation. They should evolve from an agreed-upon conception of giftedness and lead to the design of instructional experiences that make sense for the type of gifted students being identified. If this is the case, it is reasonable to wonder how a broadened identification system will impact the gifted program. Does it mean that the curriculum will change? Will it result in the program being watered down?
For us, the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.” While we have provided individual support to some students during their transition period, we did not need to lighten expectations or revamp our curriculum in response to newly identified students. The focus of our program has been and continues to be on discovering and developing each student’s strengths and interests, and providing an environment in which risk-taking, critical thinking, and uniqueness are valued. We have maintained the emphasis we place on finding topics that capture students’ imaginations and motivate them to develop and use their talents for the betterment of our school, community, and world. In this regard, students who come to us with unique backgrounds and interests are likely to contribute important perspectives to classroom dialogues and serve as a resource for other students’ learning. That kind of dynamic interaction leads to more, not less, success and more, not fewer, reasons to celebrate student accomplishments.
THE ROLE OF PARENTS
Parents had an important role to play, both in helping to develop our identification process and in supporting their children once they were admitted to the program. A key decision for us was to invite parents to serve on a parent advisory committee. The committee provided a forum for parents and gifted program personnel to learn from one another about working with talented children who have unusual learning characteristics and who come from a variety of backgrounds. It enabled us to make sure that our efforts would reflect both research and our own community’s needs and aspirations. It also ensured that parents understood state and district parameters within which we needed to work.
Everyone benefited from these sessions in more ways than we anticipated. Not only did we establish clear goals and timelines together, but we shared valuable suggestions for maintaining good communication once students were in the program. We were asked to plan ongoing parent education meetings, telephone parents to exchange information about student progress, and extend invitations to school activities and programs through the use of notes and newsletters. Parents also encouraged us to regularly recognize student successes and the contributions parents make to the program.
High on the priority list for parents was encouraging their although it may initially seem strange or too hard. Students need to hear from parents that it is natural to go through an adjustment period when faced with new challenges. Time and experience generally help students to feel confident about fitting in and meeting a new set of expectations. During our meetings, we also discussed the importance of staying involved in what children are learning in the program. We noted that such simple gestures as asking children to talk about their school experiences is an effective way to encourage student achievement and show support of student efforts. This type of parent involvement takes very little time but lets children feel that what they are doing and learning is truly important.
REASONS FOR SUCCESS
We are now in the seventh year of implementing the TREASURES identification and support component. If our experience is to be helpful to others, it is important to understand the factors that we believe contribute to its success.
First, the component did not replace our basic identification process. Rather, it was added as an alternative process to be used when needed to adequately assess student abilities. The number of such cases has been relatively small when compared to the large numbers of students in the district who apply for our program through the basic identification process. The limited number of such referrals has made it feasible for us to add a case study component into our identification efforts.
Second, we have a staff member who devotes part of her week to administering the TREASURES component. Since case study approaches are more time-consuming than traditional identification procedures, it is invaluable to have someone who can get to know applicants and provide transition support on an individual basis as needed. We have found that the ongoing personal relationship between the TREASURES staff member and identified students builds the trust and confidence needed for the students to thrive in a new academic environment.
Third, we have administered identification procedures in a consistent, clear-cut fashion. Parents have come to understand the processes we use and know that we work diligently within our guidelines to determine each student’s eligibility for the program. Because these guidelines have been very carefully designed, we have minimized situations where exceptions need to be made.
Fourth, we take every opportunity we can to talk with teachers, counselors, and administrators about our identification procedures. Along with parents, these are the individuals who are most likely to nominate students for our program. Staff development efforts have paid off in terms of increased nominations as well as enhanced staff awareness of the learning styles and unique characteristics of all students.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are fortunate to have a district that enables us to admit any student who meets criteria through either the basic or TREASURES process. Unlike many gifted programs, staffing and classroom space in our district are adjusted based on acceptances to the program rather than letting these factors limit enrollment. We have been able to create a win-win situation whereby no child is denied admission because someone else is enrolling in the program. We have been truly fortunate to have board of education members and central office administrators who support diversity, promote differentiated instruction, and understand the consequential role gifted programs can play in maximizing the academic and leadership potential of exceptional students.
What can you take from our experience and use on behalf of your children? The following ideas may prove helpful.
- Ask probing questions. Asking good questions is an important starting point. How are students currently identified for your district’s gifted program? What provisions are made for identifying students who are “twice exceptional” and may have both gifts and disabilities that need to be addressed? How does the identification process accommodate students who speak English as a second language? How does the identification process encompass what is known about giftedness in students from diverse backgrounds and circumstances?
- Network with other parents. There is strength in numbers. Work with other parents who are interested in issues related to identifying and educating gifted students from diverse populations. Read articles, listen to speakers, attend gifted conferences. Become knowledgeable about the issues you are facing and possible strategies for implementing change.
- Work with key decision makers. Change is unlikely to occur without having key decision makers behind you. If you have a gifted program coordinator, make an appointment to talk with him or her about the identification and programming issues of concern to you. Consider contacting district-level administrators, and members of your board of education. You may also want to work with the state department of education liaison for gifted education and your state gifted organization. In discussions and meetings that you attend, be prepared to share concerns and ideas that are well thought through. Action is most likely to be taken when the path upon which you want to embark is reasonable and doable.
- Volunteer to serve on parent advisory committees. When it comes to making decisions, there is nothing more vital than being present when information is exchanged. If parents are active partners in district committee work, be willing to offer your services. Participation will allow you to become known to others and will give you the opportunity to learn about district decision-making processes. The knowledge you gain and the network you establish can be very helpful in achieving meaningful goals for the gifted program.
- Be persistent. Identifying giftedness in all populations is a vital but challenging goal. Answers will not come easily. Inevitably there will be missteps and roadblocks along the way. Persistence is going to be required. When this occurs, just remember — few worthwhile goals are ever accomplishments without high hopes and hard work.
GOALS OF TREASURES
- To identify under-represented students for the gifted program.
- Determine better identification instruments to use when testing students for the gifted program. These tests need to comply with state and district standards.
- Increase nominations through training of district staff regarding characteristics of under-represented gifted student populations.
- Determine a way to to use district test scores to identify a pool of under-represented candidates for the program.
- To provide opportunities and curriculum that will enable the students to acknowledge and develop their giftedness.
- Offer in-service for gifted program teachers regarding learning characteristics of under-represented populations.
- Review all gifted curriculum to better meet the needs of students from under-represented populations.
- Educate gifted program counselors regarding special needs of TREASURES students.
- To provide communication with, and support and education for, district staff regarding under-represented gifted students.
- Provide ongoing in-service training at district home schools and during summer workshops regarding nomination, identification, curriculum, and teaching of under-represented students.
- Have the TREASURES facilitator attend yearly district counselors’ meetings to provide on-going input and communication regarding the TREASURES component.
- To provide communication with, and support and education for, families of identified students.
- Regularly communicate with parents regarding the TREASURES program.
- Institute a parent group to help new parents, answer questions and be advocates for the TREASURES component.
Author Information. Dr. Linda Smith is the Gifted Program Coordinator and Chris Puttcamp is the Lead Teacher in the program at the Rockwood School District in St. Louis, Missouri.
Hughes, R. (1993). Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America. (New York: Warner Books).