Students who lose out in the upcoming round of selective elementary school admissions – as well as other students whose families might have never considered applying – have another option: The district’s less-well-known comprehensive gifted programs, located within magnet and open-enrollment neighborhood schools.
In recent years, these gifted programs have lost the extra staff that the district once allocated to them, such as psychologists and coordinators. But they remain a draw for parents, offering classes that are accelerated by half a year to a year plus perks such as foreign language instruction or violin or jazz band classes.
Admissions are determined by each school and there is no centralized collection of data on the demographics of students. But most schools with gifted programs enroll students of color: Eight schools are majority African American, 12 are majority Latino, one enrolls mostly Asian students, and the remaining six are integrated.
Overall, enrollment at most of the 27 schools with comprehensive gifted programs is on the upswing. At 17 schools, enrollment increased. Nine schools experienced decreases, and one school did not have enrollment data for 2012-13.
Unlike magnet and selective enrollment programs, gifted schools do not control for socioeconomic factors when sorting out which students get a slot. And at small schools, running separate classes for gifted students can mean putting everyone in split-grade classes.
In general, students are selected for the programs using a language development test administered at the end of kindergarten, often combined with teacher recommendations and standardized test scores. At O.A. Thorp Elementary, says Principal Efren Toledo, teachers use a checklist of traits that aims to bring more objectivity to the identification process.
Even so, he notes that the students tend to come from middle-class families, with a few exceptions. There is no scientific definition of “giftedness,” but middle-class children who have more learning and enrichment opportunities usually have advantages in selective admissions.
“I’d love to see more, but the scores just aren’t there,” Toledo says. “In kindergarten, the only students who do well are those who’ve been read to, those with language skills.”
Once accepted, students get the chance to work at their own ability level with online curricula such as Compass Learning and Khan Academy.
This year, Toledo says, teachers are launching small-group math instruction that will teach 3rd– through 8th-grade students based on their math abilities rather than their grade.
Yet gifted programs can “create a bubble” of students who only socialize with each other, Toledo points out.
“When they get out of school, they’re not going to go to a ‘gifted’ grocery store. They are not going to go to a ‘gifted’ gas station. They need to know how to interact with everyone,” he says.
To avoid elitism, Toledo mixes students from throughout the school for recess and classes in non-core subjects.
Gifted programs solve another problem, he notes: “We tend to focus on getting the low students up. Rarely do we focus on getting those kids who are scoring really high and pushing them, because they’re not a problem.”