New research

Study finds racial discrimination in school gifted programs

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students in Memphis attend a camp for CLUE, Shelby County's gifted program.

Black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers and especially if their teacher is white, according to a new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.

And at least partly to blame may be a teaching force that is mainly white, and the level of subjectivity that still goes into decisions about which students make the cut in gifted programs, the researchers say.

“It is startling that two elementary school students, one black and the other white with identical math and reading achievement, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment to gifted services,” said Jason Grissom, the lead author.

The study was based on data from more than 10,000 elementary school students across the nation.

The data showed that black students were 66 percent less likely and Hispanic students were 47 percent less likely than white students to be assigned to gifted programs.

While the white-Hispanic assignment gap could be attributed entirely to a difference in achievement test scores, black students were assigned to gifted programs half as often as white peers with identical test scores. But researchers found that black students with black teachers were three times more likely to be granted access to gifted programs.

Grissom said the findings don’t suggest white teachers tend to be racist. Other factors may come into play.

“Maybe students respond differently to teachers with backgrounds similar to their own,” he said, or maybe a parent is more likely to approach a teacher about opportunities in a gifted program if the teacher is the same race.

“The implication of all three of those is that you’re relying on discretion to start the process,” he said. “One implication of this study is that we need to reduce the amount of discretion.”

The Catch-22 is that other studies show that achievement tests don’t always do a good job of identifying gifted students of color.

“It’s an interesting problem,” Grissom said. “You have to be really thoughtful. One kind of policy change can create opportunities for disproportionalities to slip in somewhere else.”

The study’s findings could assist districts that are seeking to make their gifted programs more fair and inclusive.

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, for instance, the district nearly doubled the percentage of newly identified gifted black students during the last year, from 12 percent last spring to 22 percent this year.

Schunn Turner, director of the district’s gifted program known as Encore, attributes the increase to  increased efforts to make parents aware of the opportunity — but there’s more work to be done.

“MNPS must still improve the overall representation of these groups in our  total enrollment numbers,” Turner said in an email, bolding the text for emphasis.

In Memphis, district leaders have tried to identify gifted students of color and in poverty as early as pre-kindergarten for inclusion in its program called Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, or CLUE.

When the district first started the program during the 1970s, leader Jo Patterson noticed that students with less resources at home were being left out, no matter how smart they were. So leaders began identifying younger students for enrichment programs such as trips to museums and other cultural activities in an effort to correct the disparity, a practice that continues today.

CLUE director Tommie Yelvington said she tries to ensure that students at all schools have access to gifted programs, and has upped the level of outreach to needier neighborhoods. Shelby County Schools also screens all of its students for gifted programs in the third grade, which Grissom said could help circumvent the problems of biases that arise when individual discretion plays too big a role.

“One of the most important things we do is to provide opportunities for all of our children,” Yelvington said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.