DPS takes steps to get more students of color into magnet programs for the highly gifted

In years past, winning a spot in one of Denver Public Schools’ eight elementary magnet programs for highly gifted and talented students—especially the sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary—required parents to be savvy and informed.

To get a shot, parents needed to fill out an application 10 months in advance so their children could take special district tests.

But that’s changing as the district moves to a system meant to diversify its highly gifted and talented population—a group that is currently nearly three-quarters white even though white students represent just 23 percent of the DPS student body.

This type of skewed participation is a long-standing problem in gifted education nationwide, with students of color and those from poor families routinely under-represented while white, affluent students predominate.

“We want to be proportionate and make sure we’re not missing kids from the traditionally underserved populations,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “We know giftedness is found in every population.”

Under a new effort launched this year in DPS, all students in kindergarten, second and sixth grade—about 22,000 students—will now be screened for gifted and talented status each fall. The families of students identified as “highly gifted and talented,” a smaller subset of the gifted and talented population, will receive letters prior to the winter school-selection window informing them of magnet programs their children can attend.

“There’s no need for parents to initiate anything,” McKinney said.

As has been the case for years, children designated as gifted and talented after the screenings will be offered services in their home schools. Students are considered highly gifted if they score in the top three percentiles on ability tests, and gifted if they land in the top fourth or fifth percentiles.

McKinney said the lack of diversity in the district’s highly gifted population is far more pronounced than in its gifted population, where 31 percent of students are white.

In addition to Polaris, which is Denver’s only stand-alone magnet school for highly gifted and talented elementary students, there are magnet programs within Archuleta, Carson, Cory, Edison, Gust, Southmoor and Teller. Magnet programs are reserved for students who meet certain entrance criteria.

District officials and national experts say universal screenings can help districts diversify their gifted populations. In Denver, the screenings consist of an ability test and an analysis of other types of district achievement data.

Joy Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, said she was encouraged to hear of DPS’ new screening effort.

“When we change the way that we treat our best and our brightest…when we change the complexion of the program, it’s a noble goal,” she said.

Nationally, several school districts have made strides in diversifying their gifted and talented populations, Lawson Davis said. They include the 260,000-student Broward County School District in Florida, the 55,000-student Atlanta Public Schools and the 32,000-student Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona.

Recent media attention and public debate about parity in gifted education has sparked some progress, Lawson Davis said.

“Up until a few years ago…I felt like it was a battle that could not be won,” she said.

No more advanced kindergarten

In addition to universal gifted and talented screening, DPS will create more spots for highly gifted students at Polaris by eliminating a loophole that allowed some non-gifted siblings to secure spots there.

The problem was the school’s advanced kindergarten class, which is for students who enter with advanced skills but aren’t necessarily gifted.

Some years, the entire advanced kindergarten class at Polaris was made up of younger siblings who would automatically continue at the school regardless of their gifted status, McKinney said.

Advanced kindergarten will continue to be available at other district schools, but will be eliminated at Polaris after next year. In addition, next year’s advanced kindergarteners at Polaris will not be granted access to first grade there unless they are designated highly gifted and talented.

The latter change was disappointing to some parents who’d hoped to keep their kids at Polaris after the kindergarten year, but most feedback has been positive, Principal Anne Sterrett said.

Lisa Mortell, who has a fourth-grader at the school and an older son who attended Polaris during his elementary years, is one parent who’s pleased about the efforts to increase diversity.

“You can’t help but look around Polaris and sense that there has to be some inherent unfairness in how these children are identified,” she said. “It’s a shame that it doesn’t look more like Denver.”

Mortell’s younger son attended advanced kindergarten at the school and later was tested and received the highly gifted and talented designation.

She said getting into Polaris felt like winning the lottery, making her wonder why the district doesn’t replicate the school in other locations around the district given the demand. The school had 126 students on the waiting list this year.

Modest progress for DPS

The results of the district’s universal gifted and talented screening last fall reveal progress for some groups, but also some yawning gaps.

For example, Hispanic students represent a growing slice of the highly gifted pie, but there was almost no change among black students.

“We definitely saw a step in the right direction from our universal sweeps this year,” McKinney said. “(I’m) not saying we have everything in place.”

Nearly 25 percent of students identified as highly gifted and talented in last fall’s screening were Hispanic, double the percentage of Hispanics in the overall gifted and talented population the year before.

Still, Hispanic students make up 56 percent of DPS’ student body, so there’s a long way to go.

Black students, who make up about 14 percent of district students, represented just 2.8 percent of the highly gifted population last year. That number hardly budged after last fall’s universal screening, ticking up to 3.2 percent.

District officials say they need to dig deeper to figure out how to better capture that population.

“African-American kids are more likely to be identified as gifted if they have African-American teachers,” McKinney said.

The problem in Denver, as in many urban districts, is that there are relatively few black teachers. They made up just 4.1 percent of the district’s workforce last year.

Lawson Davis, who authored a book for black parents about navigating gifted and talented education, said some teachers may see gifted children of color as contrary, challenging or arrogant.

“They will not even begin to look for giftedness,” she said.

But teacher training can make a big difference.

“It’s not a difficult task,” Lawson Davis said. “It’s just a matter of helping teachers peel back the layers of their own biases.”

McKinney said the district conducted this kind of training with its gifted and talented teachers for the first time at the end of April.

She said staff may also use a larger body of evidence to identify highly gifted students rather than just the universal screening measures.

District officials said they’re not sure how long it will take to better match the racial and ethnic diversity in the highly gifted program with the overall student population. Experts say at least three to five years, and probably 10 for major shifts.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” Lawson Davis said.