“Scores were so glorified, a lot of kids felt like, my scores are just right below, why can’t I?” he said. “A lot of kids changed their attitudes about themselves, they just felt dumb, like they weren’t good enough to be in the same classroom as them."
Disproportionate representation among minorities
State law has required all North Carolina schools to have an AIG program since 1961.
However, minority students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are not proportionally represented in AIG programs in the district, said Kathryn Kennedy, the director of gifted education for the district.
Kennedy said subgroups where the proportion of students in AIG programs does not match the proportion of students who are English language learners, Black, Latinx, low-income and students who are in the Exceptional Children program.
According to data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, about 0.4 percent of the students enrolled in academically enriching programs in CHCCS are Black. Comparatively, about 11.1 percent of the district is composed of Black students, according to 2018-19 racial equity report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Talikoff, who left teaching in order to advocate for students, said this underrepresentation of minority students can set kids on a path from the get-go and impact what they have access to going into high school.
In CHCCS, 49 percent of Hispanic students and 73 percent of students with disabilities in the district tested below grade level for math performance, according to the 2018-19 N.C. School Report Cards. About 60 percent of Black students, economically disadvantaged students and English learners tested below grade level for math performance.
“You end up signaling to kids at the outset of their academic journeys that they are not strong learners,” Talikoff said. “This reinforces negative racial stereotypes that kids carry with them.”
When it comes to gifted education, CHCCS goes beyond state-required AIG programs.
The district has a controversial LEAP program, which is a district-wide program targeted toward students who the district identifies as severely and profoundly gifted. It provides an independent learning environment outside the traditional classroom and advanced curriculum for students across the district in grades 4-8.
Kennedy said the equity gap involving the LEAP program is specific and persistent, and the district is looking at changing identification standards, which could be implemented by the next school year.
Talikoff said the impact of LEAP can be very far-reaching because students in the program are isolated from their peers.
She said children view it as high-status and a marker of intelligence, and many students are under a great deal of pressure to get into the program.
“Children said to me at the beginning of the school year as a fourth-grade teacher, their goal was to get into LEAP,” she said.
Kennedy, who was a teacher in the district before becoming the gifted education specialist, said she used to see inequity in CHCCS as an achievement and opportunity gap. Now, she thinks of it more as an expectation gap because teachers aren’t trained to see the talents of all their students.
“If you’re a white boy and you tell the teacher what to do, you could be viewed as a leader, white girl: bossy, black girl: disruptive and angry, black boy: disciplined at the same rate as a 17-year-old,” Kennedy said.
Page’s son said he has had bad experiences with teachers in the district who have treated him differently from other students in his classes. He said one teacher in an honors class gave him easier work and printed out notes for him while letting other students in the class write them out, which made him feel singled out.
“I’m a brown-skinned boy, and they don’t think I should be in those classes,” he said.
What parents think
Alana Agersinger is the parent of a second-grader and fourth-grader at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, a Spanish dual-language school. Agersinger said many cultural and socio-economic differences are present at the school because there is a large community of families who don't speak English.
“It’s important to have parents and staff who can speak for students who can’t necessarily speak for themselves in the gifted ed program,” Agersinger, who is the school’s representative on the district’s Gifted Program Advisory Council, said. “Students who should be identified as gifted but might need enrichment in their environment, whether it be at school or at home.”
Agersinger, whose older daughter receives AIG programming for reading, said she doesn’t believe there are enough gifted education specialists in local schools in order to accommodate the number of students. She said she thinks the district should put more financial resources toward hiring more gifted education staff, an action she said would affect even students who aren't in AIG by increasing exposure to the curriculum.
Agersinger also said she believes AIG testing should start significantly earlier.
“We start to test in third grade,” she said. “By third grade, is that too late? It should be offered starting in pre-K, starting in kindergarten.”
Talikoff said she finds it troubling that school districts determine who has potential and who doesn’t at such early stages of schooling. She also said testing measures, even those that are qualitative and not quantitative, have significant limitations.
“It would be better to treat all kids as if they had tremendous potential and deliver instruction that matches that expectation, rather than spending time and energy on who should determine curricular opportunities and be set on that trajectory towards academic achievement and success,” Talikoff said.
The district’s efforts
Kennedy said some other efforts of the district to close the gap include making sure teachers have equity training to address implicit biases and using universal screening for AIG testing so that all students are tested. This means parents can opt-out of their child being tested rather than opt-in.
She said the district is creating a summer camp for students in grades K-2 to focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) at no cost to participants.
“We’re looking at students who are from traditionally under-served groups in that academic middle, ready to move into that next level of learning,” she said. “We can’t un-resource a resourced family, so we work hard to provide the resources for students at school.”
Kennedy also said the district uses a Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool when making every policy decision.
However, Page said the problem is more persistent than getting the numbers to reflect the district’s population. She said once minorities are in the programs, it’s about providing them with the resources to stay and succeed.
“If you don’t nurture it right, you put the fire out,” she said. “What do you do to keep people? How do you decide this child can stay here? They do nothing to support anybody in there, that’s why a lot of people leave.”
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